Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Work.txt | Temping | About Money | Receptionists | Appraisal

Our writer Sally Stott’s theatre round-up collates five disparate shows bound by a connective tissue we can all relate to: work and money.

Work.txt *****

Summerhall (Venue 26)

Until 28 August

Work.txt. PIC: Alex Brenner

Temping ***

Assembly George Square Studios (Venue 17)

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Until 28 August

About Money ****

About Money. PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

Summerhall (Venue 26)

Until 28 August

Receptionists ****

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Summerhall (Venue 26)

Until 28 August

Appraisal ****

Assembly Rooms (Venue 20)

Until 27 August

I’m doing two jobs at once: reviewing these shows and, with my fellow audience members, often also helping to put them on. Are we being exploited? Maybe. Are we getting paid extra? Of course not. Do the structures of work, the theatre and even writing itself need rethinking?

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Yes, the brilliant Work.txt, at Summerhall, seems to cackle – or rather inspires us to cackle, inviting us to follow screen captions that tell us what to do and say with a sharp sense of humour that cleverly disguises its authoritarian intentions.

Underpinned by the faux freedom of a modern office, we speak when we want, often unison. “I earn over 30,000 pounds a year” say some. “I don’t” say others. Instant insights into working life after two years of lockdowns emerge: hardly anyone commutes any more, many don’t sleep well, a lot of us cried recently. But, still, we’re soon all on stage building a city of commerce from Jenga blocks – an audience-turned-industry, powering Nathan Ellis’s brilliantly conceived and highly original show that, like many jobs, is almost entirely automated.

In this multi-dimensional world, creativity is never far from capitalism, but also the kind of communal spirit that could topple the unearned power embedded in the corporate skyscrapers that we have helped construct. An unlikely revolutionary anthem – Celine Dion’s My Heart will Go On – fuels a mood of resistance that spills into reality when an audience member, thrillingly, kicks down a small part of the set before, in a gloriously unscripted final scene, the show sets us free.

However, the next day I’m back in the office – quite literally, in the immersive performance for one, Temping, where I’m covering for Sarah Jane who’s gone on holiday. Sitting at her desk is a great opportunity to pry into her life, while doing a job that seems to involve a mysterious number of mortalities, between answering emails and voice messages, as well as the odd inappropriate fax.

An intriguing mystery, rather than a more interactive multiple-choice kind of piece, it’s nevertheless great fun to pull out files and dig around drawers, even if when you try and push the situation, you hit a wall not unlike the edge of a computer game. With such small audience capacity, the Fringe run’s completely sold out, but, having spent an hour seeing people as pound signs, I wonder if the piece couldn’t be scaled up to include multiple offices, which could be operated simultaneously in a way that maximises both customer demand and future revenue streams.

In About Money, Shaun, from Glasgow, is the victim of a more sinister kind of profit-driven capitalism, as he tries and fails to cover the cost of looking after a young child, Sophie, from his job at the McDonalds-esque ‘Tasty’s’. Helped and hindered by his pal Eddie, a bombastic, Burns-loving, natural born childminder and drugs dealer, the two young men aren’t exactly your standard carers, dancing and swearing their way around the living room with thrilled Sophie, their unconventional but in many ways well-functioning family unable to fit the rigid rota of Shaun’s boss and tick-box templates of social services.

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Tasty’s is a place where you can cause trouble, question things and get fired just like anywhere else, and Shaun is conflicted over whether he has the energy or money to join sassy Londoner Hannah in her attempts to start a union – the Jabberwockys of Sophie’s stories easier to defeat in fiction than real life. But when it feels like the (now) four-person family have finally been broken, a single word at the end of Eliza Gearty’s cleverly structured, powerfully performed play offers a slice of hope through the dark.

Rather than money, it’s the pressure of five stars, on a hotel sign, that literally hangs above the heads of the two marvellously unprofessional clowns on the front desk in Receptionists. As the bell rings and their shift begins, so does the conflict between the duo’s painted-on professional grimaces and the bored anarchists waiting to get out beneath. How, we, the audience laugh at their escapades in a way that we definitely wouldn’t if we found them dancing around a real-life laundry cupboard in the towels heading towards our rooms.

Watching the well-known world of customer service get joyously shattered by the ever-expressive, endlessly destructive Inga Björn and Kristina Tammisalo – like a Finnish female Laurel and Hardy – is a shot of Espresso for anyone who’s been trapped in the office for too long. By the end, the hotel has lost two stars – an event that is largely rendered meaningless by the two funny figures now hiding under the front desk. It would never happen in real life, which is perhaps why it’s so enjoyable to watch here.

It’s back to the daily grind in Appraisal, where abstract notions of “boosting productively” are easily repurposed by the openly incompetent, been-there-too-long boss Jo to wield power over his proficient and popular team leader Nicki, who just wants to be left alone to get on with her job. Through an at times painfully identifiable workplace ‘review’, hypocritically dressed up as a two-way ‘conversation’, the thin façade of Jo’s bad jokes and empty expressions of gratitude fall away to reveal the familiar figure of a man in power intent on tormenting and controlling a woman who’s clearly better than him, but is somehow still sitting on the wrong side of the desk.

“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in (office) politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors,” is a quote memorably debated in Timothy Marriott’s increasingly tense script. The issues might sometimes feel as obvious as Nicki’s mobile phone lying on the desk, but – with solid performances from Nicholas Collett and Angela Bull – it’s a classically structured two-hander that captures the unjustifiable, often unaccounted for, behaviour enabled by office hierarchies that wouldn’t be tolerated anywhere else. Sally Stott