Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Black Sheep | Fat Chance | Lucid | This Is Not a Show About Hong Kong | Nightlands
Our latest round-up of reviews includes a powerfully personal combination of performance poetry, music and sword-swallowing, and a bold piece about the struggles of young Chinese people living under authoritarian rule. Words by Joyce McMillan, David Pollock and Ben Walters.
Black Sheep ****
Assembly Rooms (Powder Room) (Venue 20)
It stabs like a sword, says Livia Kojo Alour, to be rejected because the reality of your being doesn’t match a stereotyped expectation projected on you from the outside. The simile has an extra edge because Alour is one of just four Black sword-swallowers working around the world today.
Her experience as a circus and burlesque performer – in terms of both skillset and treatment within the industry – powerfully combines with personal memoir, performance poetry and song in Black Sheep, a solo piece about Alour’s challenges as a Black queer woman not only in encountering others but also in decolonising her understanding of herself.
The narrative begins with Alour’s upbringing in Germany, daughter of a loving white mother who couldn’t prepare her for life as a Black woman. Experiences of othering at school and later are followed by attempts to conform and, eventually, forms of self-liberation. Alour faces down schoolyard ignorance and a drumbeat of romantic objectification that frames her as exotic then demands she explain herself; as a performer, meanwhile, she finds she is expected to serve a certain kind of erotic glamour. Yet she also rhapsodises over the hair she was taught to see as a problem, finds strength in community and learns to reject the script she’s been given.
This arc plays out through eclectic forms, from vivid and compelling poetic memoir to rollerskating BLM protest. Alour’s burlesque and sword-swallowing talents are knowingly recontextualised while judicious costume changes trace the evolution of her sensibility.
Her voice, on versions of songs such as I Put a Spell on You and Wicked Game, is rich and enveloping. The heart of the journey is the embrace of collective Black love – even if the solo performance form more easily represents the isolation of the odd one out than the togetherness of community. Ben Walters
Until 27 August
Fat Chance ***
Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)
In perhaps the most telling line of her very personal one-woman play, Rachel Stockdale relates the words of an acting agent who pointed out to her that she’s Northern, fat and female, and that in her industry it’s only acceptable to be two of those things at once in order to keep getting work. “They say either eat all the cakes or eat none,” she says ruefully.
An actor from Middlesbrough, Stockdale (‘Stocky’ to her friends) has turned her struggles with an industry in which she doesn’t seem to fit neatly into a thoughtful and clearly very heartfelt consideration of the way society views people based on their body shape, as the number of people in the UK who are overweight or obese surges.
She tells her story as a series of quirky and vaguely connected set-pieces, from the comedic – her supportive partner appears as a flickering standard lamp with a near-unintelligible accent – to the painfully revealing, and both her physical frankness and warm sense of humour add power to what she’s saying.
Fat Chance is at once a character study of and calling card for the actor herself, as she declares that “everyone puts you in a box and they're surprised to see you out of it” while pondering whether her career choice is a form of self-harm, and a revealing mirror up to the performing industry itself. David Pollock
Until 28 August (not 22, 23)
Zoo Playground (Venue 186)
There are lots of ideas and bags of physical energy in this piece from young company As If Productions, which just about make up for the fact that everything is hung so loosely together.
The five-piece ensemble play 11-year-old children on a school trip to the Isle of Wight in 2010, getting over the fallout from one of their number anonymously putting a note in classmate Toby’s locker which pretended to be his friend Lucy confessing undying love, and going caving in tunnels cleverly created using sleeping bags and headtorches.
The girls seem particularly obsessed with Tom Daley – this was before the Olympic medallist came out – and the central conceit of the piece revolves around lucid dreaming, a training method employed by top-level divers in which they visualise and ‘experience’ the actions they’ll undertake while asleep. Here, all of the children are lucid-dreaming the anxiety of simply being 11, and sharing their dreams with one another to comic effect.
Formation movement and well-designed live foley work add to the pleasing texture of the piece, although as ever, it’s unusual for a work of student drama to substitute well-crafted quirk for real emotional depths. Although the maturity of their output will develop in time, though, the company clearly has an abundance of raw talent right now. David Pollock
Until 28 August (not 22)
This Is Not A Show About Hong Kong ****
Underbelly Cowgate (Venue 61)
Summerhall (Venue 26)
The world’s tilt towards a dangerous new stand-off between two hostile power-blocs has happened so swiftly, over the last half-decade, that few theatre-makers in the west have yet come to grips with it.
For the company presenting This Is Not A Show About Hong Kong, though, there has been no choice in the matter; and over a fragmented but immensely vivid hour, they conjure up a series of impressionistic images of a generation of young Hong Kong people ever more oppressed and hemmed in by increasingly authoritarian rule from Beijing, in direct breach of the promises when the UK handed control of Hong Kong to China, in 1997.
So in this bold show, presented by Max Perry and Friends with the help of an Underbelly Untapped Award, we see dance-like sequences referring back to the “umbrella” protests of 2014, families rowing over the young people’s involvement in protests, powerful scenes suggesting the suppression of gay love, or the loss of any kind of future, symbolised by a sad phantom pregnancy.
And at the end, a young man stands with a suitcase, as he makes the now all but inevitable journey towards a new life in Britain; reminding us as he goes that “feeling safe all the time” is an increasingly rare luxury, in a world reeling under new waves of authoritarianism, and the violent conflict that comes in its wake.
In Dogstar Theatre’s new show Nightlands, by contrast, young Scottish writer-director Jack MacGregor makes a huge imaginative leap into the minds of two Russian people with very different experiences of the collapse of the Soviet Union, three decades ago.
Set in 1999 in abandoned Pyramiden - once a model communist town, built on land leased from Norway on the Arctic island of Svalbard - Nightlands imagines an encounter between Sasha, a man of around 60 who has lived in Pyramiden for decades, and Slava, a young woman sent by the Russian government to work at a security and wildlife monitoring station there.
The play’s aim is to contrast Slava’s relatively positive acceptance of the collapse of communism with Sasha bitter’s resistance, gradually modulating from a genuine faith in communism, to the kind of nostalgic authoritarian nationalism that is now fuelling Russian aggression in Ukraine.
And if MacGregor’s narrative finally becomes blurred by questions about how far Sasha and Slava are different people at all, Matthew Zajac and Rebecca Wilkie sustain the passionate intensity of their performances to the end, in a hugely ambitious and promising play, on a subject that could hardly be more topical, in 2022. Joyce McMillan
This Is Not a Show About Hong Kong until 28 August, Nightlands run completed.