Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: The Village and the Road | Love Them to Death | The Stones | A Matter of Time | When We Were Normal | Jesus, Jane, Mother & Me | Love Me or I’ll Kill Myself

A musical meditation on dying villages across Europe, a tense tug-of-war over a child’s wellbeing and an atmospheric horror story all feature in our latest round-up of Fringe theatre. Reviews by Susan Mansfield, David Pollock, David Hepburn and Sally Stott

The Village and the Road ****

Scottish Storytelling Centre (Venue 30), until 29 August

Some years ago, the poet Tom Pow received a Creative Scotland grant to visit dying villages around Europe. Various works have been inspired by that journey, the latest being this poignant piece of theatre created with folk music quartet The Galloway Agreement and directed by Matthew Zajac.

The Village and the Road

Pow’s script weaves a route among many different villages and roads, from the young Laurie Lee, setting out one midsummer morning with his violin, to the high plains of Northern Spain or the Oblast of Kostroma in Russia. But the direction is always the same: the road taking people (usually the young) away from the village, towards the city.

Some leave their homes driven out by danger, but most leave for better opportunities elsewhere. In the west of Ireland, families hold something like a wake for a departing son or daughter. The Welsh have the word “hiraeth”, a longing for an idea of home which is never satisfied. In Russia, Pow meets a woman who tells him how her village was once full of song; now, the only singer leaves quietly, without having sung.

So strong is this common theme that there is a danger that the stories start to blend into one another, losing their distinguishing features. But Pow’s rich blend of poetry and prose keeps finding new notes to strike.

The musicians, on stage throughout like a chorus, drive the narrative too, while weaving a soundscape of tunes and traditions from their own European travels. “How do you tell a village is dying?” they ask, near the end of the show, and the answer is a fierce, angry, keenly observed monologue which remains etched on the mind long after the lights come up. Susan Mansfield

Love Them to Death ****

Underbelly (Venue 61), until 28 August

“Do you remember when it was normal just to feel things?” asks teacher Kelly, in rhetorical monologue to the audience, her wit’s end fast approaching with the concerned parent making relentless requests and complaints regarding her primary-aged son Danny’s physical health and anxiety. Yet Gemma, that emotionally overburdened parent, doesn’t think Kelly or the school are taking her concerns seriously enough. “A mother knows when something is wrong with her own child,” she pleads, not unreasonably.

Playwright Max Dickins’ new work is on one hand a compelling fusion of medical and classroom drama, and there are elements of it which wouldn’t seem out of place on a particularly compelling episode of Casualty. Yet where the Hannah Eidinow-directed two-hander really finds its groove is in the way it builds a sense of ambiguity until the very end, with each character presenting a case which sounds compelling and a personality which seems just flawed enough to raise doubts about them.

Kelly (Claire-Louise Cordwell) appears no-nonsense and effective, and some may indeed empathise with her belief that children are mollycoddled and overprotected these days. “Aren’t children meant to be challenging?” she implores. “He’s five years old!” Yet she’s been censured for her own over-close relationships with children before – perhaps she’s the one with the overactive imagination, born from an unpleasantly suspicious nature?

The pressure felt by Gemma (Helena Antoniou), meanwhile, is palpable, as she frets over Danny’s seemingly chronic but tricky to diagnose health conditions, including the blood in his urine, the long-term lack of appetite and complications from a previous hospital admission. Yet is her earnest boast about doing many hours of internet research a red flag, and is she really a fantasist? A teacher at Danny’s old school believes so.

Through the strong writing and performances, we get a vivid sense of Danny – or the two possible versions of him at least, healthy and unhealthy – even though the child never appears. Whoever’s side you might find yourself taking, you may not look at who bears ultimate responsibility for a child’s health the same way again. David Pollock

The Stones ****

Assembly Roxy (Venue 139), until 29 August

Theatrical monologues are a staple of the Fringe: simple to stage on a low budget in a small venue, with the script given the chance to shine unencumbered by the bells and whistles expected of larger productions. The Stones is an example of the genre in its purest form; a single performer on a bare stage simply telling a story. And actor Luke Mullins tells writer and director Kit Brookman’s gothic tale beautifully.

It all starts when Nick receives a message from a former schoolmate inviting him to the theatre. He accepts, having recently quit his job and fresh from a brutal breakup with his boyfriend. Newly liberated, Nick plans to take the chance to confess to a cruel campaign of hate he secretly waged on his fellow pupil many years earlier that left him wracked with guilt, only stopping himself at the last moment.

While catching up with his blissfully ignorant friend he meets a wealthy woman called Amelia, who offers him a dream job tutoring her two children in a luxurious country pile next to a mysterious dried up lake known as the Dead Mire. All goes well at first, but then strange stones start appearing in Nick’s locked cottage, while the initially-quaint local festival seems to be less wicker basket and more Wicker Man.

This is a masterclass in slowly ratcheting up tension with little more than dry ice, an understated soundtrack and tremendously lyrical writing. A text message has “an initial ‘C’ hanging like a claw at the end”, hinting at the horrors to come, while Amelia appears like “a heron perched in a dead tree”. Coming across like an episode of Tales of the Unexpected written by Edgar Allan Poe, it’s a satisfying dark mystery, regularly undercut with black humour, that’s sure to haunt you for days. David Hepburn

A Matter of Time ***

C ARTS | C venues | C cubed (Venue 19), until 28 August

Like a young Bridget Christie in the ant phase of her career, Anjali Singh appears from the dark wearing a cardboard grandfather clock-face in this surreal, offbeat and insightful little comedy about the unseen pressures of time and the rigid structures, which have, over the course of time, been imposed on us to standardise our behaviour – in particular, the working day, week and year.

It’s fun and fascinating stuff, as Singh, an accomplished theatre maker and performer, carries out musical numbers and spoken word scenes, spanning theories and philosophies of time, its history, and her relationship with her boyfriend, on its own timer, as she has agreed to split up with him on a set date in the future, as he doesn’t want to have children and she does.

Hamilton’s Non-Stop, with its “running out of time” recurring lyrics, is a fitting anthem for Singh’s one-woman revolution against time, as is Pulp’s Common People as we travel through the industrialisation period that led to many of the working structures that we still have today. “Time is not a cage,” she says, with her beautiful voice ever-ready for a song. Things finish a bit suddenly, but a message of self-agency over inherited structures and living in the moment is a thought-provoking conclusion to a refreshingly unusual show. Sally Stott

When We Were Normal ***

theSpace Triplex (Venue 38), until 27 August

There is much to commend in this tender coming-of-age story by Maddie Lynes, staged by Three Sisters Productions. Max (Emily Beck) is studying for her A levels while helping her mum, Melanie (Maria Pointer), a former dancer who has MS. When the precociously confident Ophelia (Aine McNamara) transfers from a private school and gets assigned to Max a study partner, she’s soon learning more than As You Like It.

Lynes has written what feels like a fully fleshed-out family story, and it’s always a pleasure to see a cast of five on stage at the Fringe. There are strong performances all round, particularly from McNamara and Pointer, and Naphysa Awuah and Dan Pattern add comedy value as the garrulous neighbour and airhead boyfriend.

It needs more pace and tension, less time spent on scene changes and a little more punch in its ending, but there is a lot of promising writing here which is developed into sensitive performances. It’s also a pleasure to see drama evolving from the ebb and flow of life, rather than a play which revolves around a major trauma. Susan Mansfield

Jesus, Jane, Mother & Me ***

Pleasance Dome (Venue 23), until 29 August

Philip Stokes – writer of Heroin(e) for Breakfast and My Filthy Hunt – makes his return to the Fringe with this dark tale of a disturbed superfan. When we meet 18-year-old Daniel Valentine (Jack Stokes), he’s back in the family home to “tie up some loose ends”. With his cut-glass vowels and confident bearing, he seems much older than his years and perfectly in control.

The truth is, he’s anything but. A troubled child of a troubled single mother, Daniel’s childhood was rescued first by the Church, then by fanatical devotion to singer Jane McDonald. His mother was a massive Jane fan too, but as Daniel gets older, and the wheels come off at school, all that he felt he could rely on begins to crumble.

Despite a powerful performance by Stokes, and an atmospheric set and lighting by Craig Lomas, I was never entirely convinced by Daniel’s story, nor by the affected accent he has chosen to adopt. Can anyone, after two years of homelessness, still sound so assured? Hurtling towards its apocalyptic conclusion, this play is less “darkly funny”, more unremittingly bleak. Susan Mansfield

Love Me or I’ll Kill Myself ***

ZOO Playground (Venue 186), until 28 August

Having been, like so many performers, unable to put on her show in 2020, Faith Brandon is here now to “create a real connection, spontaneous and magic.” As she intensely stares out across the audience, it’s a formidable thought. But Brandon’s exploration of love and obsession isn’t scared of making its audience feel uncomfortable – and today, Fran in the front row, who looks extremely worried, is the recipient of her affections.

While a bit more care could be taken to pick someone who’s at least slightly up for audience participation, the unease has a point – and is contrasted with the sad desperation of Faith’s own globe-trotting infatuation, with a man from Barcelona who “keeps looking at other women”. Initially seeming like dark Fatal Attraction-style comedy, the show cleverly shifts our sympathies from the obsessed over to the obsessive.

Scenes evolve in surprising and original ways, as the increasingly manic Faith moves from self-help mantras to a magic spell to win her love back through “a web of desire” created live on stage. By the end, Fran is finally given a chance to say (a very quiet) “no” to Faith’s advances through a conclusion that effectively captures the passion, pain and sheer awkwardness of unrequited love. Sally Stott