Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: This is Memorial Device | Still Floating | Birds of Passage in the Half Light | Shame On You!
Paul Higgins poignantly relates a tale of rock’n’roll outsiders with the help of some shop dummies in an outstanding adaptation of the modern cult novel, leading our latest round-up of Fringe theatre highlights. Reviews by Joyce McMillan, Fiona Shepherd, Fergus Morgan and David Pollock
This is Memorial Device ****
Wee Red Bar (Venue 506), until 29 August (not 24)
There are many shows about fandom on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe; the bands, films and franchises that, since the 1960s, have provided generations of young people with way-marks, and a sense of shared identity, in an increasingly confusing and media-driven world.
There’s none more poignant, though – or more significant in the cultural landscape of Scotland – than This is Memorial Device, Graham Eatough’s new stage version of the 2017 novel by David Keenan about “the greatest band that never existed”, an imaginary punk-art combo from Airdrie in Lanarkshire who, for three brief years in the early 1980s, light up the local landscape with their wild indie experimentalism, and even make brief forays to Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, before crashing and burning in classic rock-icon style.
On a stage cluttered with memorabilia kept for decades in his basement, Paul Higgins plays music writer Ross Raymond, who grew up in Airdrie alongside the members of Memorial Device, and remains obsessed with their brief moment of counter-cultural glory. He tells the story of a band whose journey began when their lead guitarist, Big Patty, saw a tower-block being demolished, and decided that in future, his music would sound like a building falling, or nothing; and with the help of some fragmented shop-window dummies – who feature extensively in the story – constructs for us the three core members of the band, Big Patty in his shades and battered top hat, quiet Richard the drummer, and Lucas, the brain-injured genius, poet and lyricist, who needs his own “memorial device”, in the shape of a notebook, to remember what he did yesterday.
Following the pattern of the book, the show also features a recorded oral history of the band, in superb short filmed interviews with Julie Wilson Nimmo, Mary Gapinski, Sanjeev Kohli and Gabriel Quigley as assorted friends, fans and associates of the band in its pomp.
At the centre, though, stands Higgins, delivering a poignant and beautiful performance as a man still obsessed, like so many of today’s 40 and 50-somethings, with those moments of musical glory and communion that shaped their youth; and with that moment, just after the turn of the 1980s, when Scottish working-class artists had both the means and the motive to commune with the greatest minds of the 20th century underground and avant-garde, and to create their own counter-culture, on the streets where they grew up. Joyce McMillan
Still Floating ****
Summerhall (Venue 26), until 29 August (not 22)
Anyone familiar with the work of playwright/performer Shôn Dale-Jones will recognise the disarming mix of compassion, comedy, unease and anger in his latest show – and will certainly recognise whole chunks of material.
Still Floating is a post-Brexit remix of Floating, the first outing for his alter ego Hugh Hughes, the loveable “emerging artist from Wales”, a whimsical fable in which the island of Anglesey becomes untethered from mainland Wales and sails around the Atlantic with its inhabitants making the best of their accidental uncoupling. Some embrace their newfound independence but life is tough on a drifting island with no solid connection to the rest of the world. Who knows how Theatre Royal Plymouth (“a theatre in Plymouth,” says Dale-Jones in the modest mansplaining style of Hughes) spotted a Brexit metaphor in that.
But although much of Dale-Jones’s work is inspired by our relationship with the past, a simple restaging of Floating doesn’t float his boat. And so Still Floating oscillates between some of the greatest hits of its predecessor – the cardboard cut-out props, the rise and fall of schoolteacher leader Mr Morgan, Dale-Jones in his modesty towel and then layering on the jumpers in an airless room (that’s dedication to his art) – and a new story set in the present day. Here he travels home to Anglesey to see his ailing mum, flirt with a local housing campaign and reconnect with his forlorn childhood friend Dylan, who he describes beautifully in a microcosmic example of his beguiling writing style.
As ever, while the audience is laughing gently at the whimsy, sniggering at Hughes’ haplessness and feeling as cosy as the performer in his jumpers, there is a more trenchant point being made by Dale-Jones who is carefully and cleverly tying all the seemingly disparate strands together to coalesce around the human need for connection – to our home, to our past, to each other. Fiona Shepherd
Birds of Passage in the Half Light ****
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14), until 29 August (not 22)
Birds of Passage in the Half Light – the new one-woman play by Kat Woods, performed by Fiona McGeown and produced by Northern Ireland-based new writing company Tinderbox Theatre – tells two separate stories, both of which concern the Catholic Church in Ireland and its appalling treatment of single mothers over the centuries.
One follows a nameless woman in modern-day Fermanagh, heading to confession for the first time in years. Monologue by monologue, we learn about her life, and the lives of her mother and grandmother before her, all of which have been affected by oppressive, state-sanctioned misogyny. Fair warning: it is a traumatic tale of sexual abuse, date rape, forced adoption, abortion and more.
The other story is something of a lecture, tracing the various ways in which church and state have collaborated to control the reproductive rights of Irish women from the 12th century to today. It is all here in awful detail – the Magdalene laundries, the mass graves, the money-making. Woods makes it clear that coercing vulnerable women, their bodies and their babies was an Irish industry.
The two stories interweave over the course of an hour, McGeown deftly switching between characters. As the nameless woman, she is sharp and stubborn. As our lecturer, she masks her righteous rage with a gleeful grimace.
This is a hard-hitting show, but not a humourless one: Woods’ writing writhes with a Beckettian lyricism and blacker-than-black laughs. Director Patrick J O’Reilly’s production provides a perfect platform for it – a microphone, a dimly lit stage, and a translucent curtain on which Fergus Kelly’s entertaining animated illustrations are projected throughout.
It has only just arrived in Edinburgh, halfway through the festival, so early-run issues require ironing out – audibility needs improving, for example – but Birds of Passage in the Half Light is a solid and sobering show, brimming with anger and insight. Fergus Morgan
Shame On You! ***
Summerhall (Venue 26), until 28 August (not 22)
This collaborative work by theatremaker and musician duo Trixa Arnold and Ilja Komarov is an unusual beast: part testimony-gathering exercise, part invitation to the audience to reflect and get involved, part unique musical concert. Their collective two-person company is named Arnold and Komarov Travelling Theatre, and they’ve already toured this show through Switzerland (Arnold’s home country), Russia (Komarov’s) and Pakistan, all the time adding to what they call their “archive of shame”.
Whether within the performance, or by means of anonymously submitted paper slips or web comments afterwards, previous audiences have told the pair what makes them experience feelings of shame. The duo sit alongside one another onstage, some of their viewers seated around them in a help group-style semi-circle, and Komarov takes slips of paper from his pocket to read past collected shames. At first these are modest and amusing, but they become darker and more discomfiting as the show progresses. The audience is told requests to stop will be heeded.
Between the words, the pair play music, Komarov singing and playing guitar, and Arnold scratching out gorgeous if unsettling “samples” on old vinyl records. As they do this, an invited audience member slips through flashcard lyric translations, Bob Dylan-style. For a brief minute or two, Komarov reveals his own shame for his home country, but otherwise this calmly-composed work is more a mood piece – an invitation to reflect rather than a direct confrontation with shame. David Pollock