Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Bitter Lemons | The Rotting Heart | Tre | God Done Opened The Sky!! | Ivories | Crawling Up The Walls

Lucy Hayes’ nuanced, gripping play about unexpected pregnancies is a standout of the Fringe’s first weekend, says David Pollock.


Bitter Lemons ****

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) until 28 August

Shannon Hayes and Chanel Waddock play two women facing unexpected pregnancies in Lucy Hayes' play Bitter Lemons.Shannon Hayes and Chanel Waddock play two women facing unexpected pregnancies in Lucy Hayes' play Bitter Lemons.
Shannon Hayes and Chanel Waddock play two women facing unexpected pregnancies in Lucy Hayes' play Bitter Lemons.

In a pair of parallel monologues, two young women with very different goals in life find unexpected pregnancies affecting their plans in contrasting ways. One (Shannon Hayes) is flying high in a banking job, ambitious to progress her career in her late twenties. The other (Chanel Waddock) is a goalkeeper in her local women's team, who's coming ever closer to taking the club’s number one shirt.

The pair experience discrimination, through the overt sexist and racist belittling of one male colleague, or the murmuring doubt, expressed even by the character’s own mother, that football isn't for women. Both characters choose to have an abortion, and their decisions’ repercussions crackle with mounting urgency and tension as they approach points – an important work presentation alongside the hated sexist adversary, a debut match as first choice ‘keeper – which place them under maximum pressure in this moment of distress.

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The winner of the Pleasance Edinburgh National Partnership Award with Bristol Old Vic, Lucy Hayes’ honest, humorous, extremely frank play is done maximum justice by her own direction and the engaging, fluent performances of her two leads. They push cube-shaped black stools around Roisin Martindale’s set, a grid of black and white squares, as though they were human chess pieces, echoing the sense that both women are hostage to society’s expectations.

The agonising physical effects of the goalkeeper’s abortion catch up with her amid the match, and in the meeting any sense of pained diplomacy is blown away in the face of harassment. The lemons of the title refer to both the “lemon-sized chunks” which may leave the body following the procedure and the lemons life gives you, and the supportive words of more experienced women are offered as the first step towards recovery and acceptance. With abortion rights on the international agenda, this careful, nuanced, gripping work depicts women exercising control over their own bodies without flinching from the cost of the experience.

David Pollock


The Rotting Heart **

Scottish Storytelling Centre (Venue 30) until 13 August

There's a neat conceit at the core of this new piece written and performed by Daniel Orejon. If a society litigates against men's natures does that make them unnatural - or even supernatural? One young man in 16th century Spain becomes attracted to another, resulting in confused feelings of anger, lust and bestial transmutation. There are dark mutterings of possible causes such as a Satanic monastery but ultimately it's a metaphor that feels overstretched. Simple stories have power when they're emotionally engaging and, while Ortega gives a good account of himself, the deliberately confusing nature of the narrative holds you at arm's length. The result is a story that continually announces it's full of passion and blood lust but feels curiously dull.Rory Ford


Tre **

Greenside@ Riddles Court (venue 16) until 12 August

This absurdist fable about the excessive levels of tourism in a fictitious Cornish village is told by street performer Matthew Keys, dressed as a traditional Piskie.There is real pathos and sadness here and a serious political point to be made, but a couple of nifty magic tricks are not enough to elevate it into a coherent narrative. The storytelling is inconsistent, the humour is lame and Keys bellows as if he is outside in the fresh and breezy Royal Mile, not inches away from his audience in a tiny cupboard of a venue.Claire Smith


God Done Opened the Sky!! **

theSpace @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53) until 12 August

There's no doubting the sincerity of Jersten Ray Seraile's achingly well intentioned exploration of identity and heritage, although its earnest spirituality may prove a hurdle for some (the two exclamation marks in the title should be taken as fair warning). La, a black American boy, is shocked to be mistaken for a suspect by police. Questioning his own identity and how people view him, he's visited by the ghosts of his ancestors and a Native American spirit. Jersten ambitiously forgoes a simple dramatic monologue in favour of playing all the parts but the effect does draw attention to the artifice in a play where suspension of disbelief is key. It's a complex, worthy piece but it does often struggle to hold interest.Rory Ford


Ivories ***

theSpace on the Mile (Venue 39) until 12 August

Horror fans know the real deal when we see it and Riley Elton McCarthy’s tightly wound exploration of haunting grief is a refreshing case in point. A drama that owes as much to the Southern Gothic sensibilities of Tennessee Williams as Ari Aster’s family traumas this - remarkably - justifies its extensive 100 minute running time. Sloane (McCarthy) is a non-binary playwright who’s inherited a rambling family home - or will anyway when their resident deaf grandmother finally dies. Sloane’s husband, Gwyn (Hans Mueh) invites their old friend Beckham (Ryan Pangracs) to expedite the sale which sets off a chain of events that never goes quite where you might expect; McCarthy clearly knows the genre intimately and is adept at side-stepping your expectations. This is no mere pastiche or homage; the production is unafraid of onstage creepiness (largely provided by Chloe Kramer) and takes real risks without ever inviting laughter. All the characters are well sketched rather than finely drawn but they’re sympathetic and the tangled web of their past histories convinces. This is risky material handled with the required degree of gravitas and if the denouement doesn’t quite live up to the impressive build up you may find yourself haunted by it for quite a while.Rory Ford


Crawling Up The Walls ***

Greenside @ Riddles Court (Venue 16) until 9 August

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A physical theatre comedy that lands somewhere between Inside Out and Saw, Crawling Up The Walls entraps seven sinful strangers and demands that they compare their life choices. It’s performed by students from Bishop’s Stortford College, the amateur cast navigating a cramped stage with confidence and charisma, lifting and tumbling over each-other in well-choreographed, character-driven power struggles.

When each sinner takes a turn to monologue the rest of the ensemble create deft, inventive tableaus to illustrate their stories, the best of which features a Narnia-like kitchen fridge and the creation of a brilliantly human-sized sandwich. This absurdity suits the cast’s clearly playful spirit and Crawling Up The Walls is most convincing when it leans into such physical humour and imagery, aided by a sparse set of glowing white cubes.

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Less clear is the metric by which these sinners are supposedly evaluated: a passion for sandwiches or a penchant for napping are hardly comparable to physical violence, yet our moralising host takes great pleasure in labelling them all equally “disgusting!”. This comedically sweeping approach to both “crime” and judgement could be the point, yet Envy’s final speech about insecurity is gentle and genuinely felt, an unexpectedly poignant tonal twist.

Katie Hawthorne

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