Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre reviews: Wreckage | The Mistake | Johnny Got His Gun | Made in India/Britain
A ghostly gay romance and a play about the double discrimination of being British-Asian and deaf provide some unique insights, while an innovative show about the Manhattan Project and an avant-garde adaptation of a Dalton Trumbo classic inject some anti-war fury into the Fringe. Reviews by Sally Stott, David Pollock and Fergus Morgan
Summerhall, until 28 August
“Breath. Study. We’ve got this.” Noel is the perfect, if somewhat intense, partner for young, more sensitive Sam, who grows to rely on his new self-confident boyfriend for support. Filled with additional self-doubt from falling in love – something that isn’t helped by Noel’s laidback approach to ex-partners – Sam finds himself in an at times unhealthy and destructive relationship, despite the couple’s clear affection for one another. It’s a dynamic that continues after Noel dies in a car crash. As Sam struggles to move on from the tragic event, Noel becomes a ghost-like, but still very physical-feeling presence who continues to intrude on Sam’s thoughts, sharing advice and getting angry when things don’t seem to go his way.
It’s a heightened set-up, but Tom Ratcliffe’s polished and compassionate script paints a gay couple’s relationship with a level of real-life complexity that’s not often seen in theatre. As we move between the past, present and, eventually travel into the future, a conflict over who controls the narrative of the men’s memories and decides what happens next is lived out in Sam’s head. As the effects of Sam’s mental state on this imagined reality become clear, we realise that it’s perhaps not Noel that’s the problem, but Sam’s need to hold on to what they once had together which, however painful, he must now leave behind.
At times heart-breaking, but ultimately hopeful and passionately performed (by Ratcliffe and Michael Walters), it’s a story that, like a well-oiled traction engine, ramps up the emotion, set against the couple’s beautiful garden-facing home which, through one particularly wrenching scene, is destroyed. A final scene that sees Sam find a healthier way to simultaneously honour the past and move on from it leaves a good chunk of the audience in tears. As we weep, the two men hold hands and head off into the light. Sally Stott
The Mistake ****
theSpace on North Bridge, until 27 August
At 8.15am in the morning of the 6th of August 1945, the Allies detonated the first nuclear bomb used as a weapon of war over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Created from contemporary accounts of the Manhattan Project and from the city on the ground as it happened, this two-hander play examines the societal and literal fallout of that day.
It introduces Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, who in 1933 conceived the nuclear chain reaction as a plentiful source of energy. He helped the Americans develop this technology, simply because if they hadn’t, the Nazis – whom he’d just escaped from in Europe – might have instead.
Bringing Enrico Fermi and Albert Einstein into the story, it shows how Szilard and the great scientists involved in the project were successful, but also how he was horrified by the bomb’s effects when it was used. He tried to intervene before Nagasaki was bombed three days later, and later established the Council for a Liveable World shortly before his death, in 1964, to advocate for the ethical use of nuclear technology.
Alongside Szilard, we meet General Paul Tibbets, who commanded the Enola Gay when it dropped the atom bomb, and hear poignant, heart-breaking testimony of survivors of the blast, including the late manga artist Keiji Nakazawa. Faint hearts must gird themselves to hear these accounts of flayed flesh, radiation poisoning and mothers reduced to a pair of feet welded to the ground.
At eighty minutes long, the weight of the play is felt structurally, with flashbacks and flashforwards broken up into parts, making the pacing jumpy here and there. Yet none of this is in any way a dealbreaker. Using a set of revolving chalkboards and some simple props, Emiko Ishii and Michael Mears (also writer and director) have created an evocative, well-researched and urgently fascinating story. David Pollock
Johnny Got His Gun ****
Zoo Southside, until 28 August
A man lies on a steel table covered by a white cloth, a bandage wrapped tightly around his face, his head resting on the strings of an electric guitar. It is an arresting, abstract image at the start of an arresting, abstract show: Finnish theatre-maker Essi Rossi’s avant-garde, one-man adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s 1938 anti-war masterpiece Johnny Got His Gun.
Written and directed by Rossi, performed by Johannes Holopainen, and brought to Edinburgh as part of the From Start To Finnish showcase, Johnny Got His Gun takes Trumbo’s novel – and its story of Joe Bonham, the teenage World War One soldier who has had his arms, legs and face blown off, and lies helpless in a hospital bed – and runs with it in some dark and disturbing directions.
Holopainen tears his bandages off and rampages around the room, wide-eyed and wild. Sometimes he reminisces about his childhood. Sometimes he imagines the future. Sometimes he rails against the military industrial complex. Sometimes he writhes on the floor. Sometimes he plays the guitar and sings. Sometimes he wields his guitar like a weapon. It is a bold, brave performance.
All the while, Pauli Riikonen’s insistent sound design scrambles falling bombs, ringing telephones, political speeches and doomy synths, while writer-director Rossi conjures up some stark visuals. There is a particularly powerful moment when Holopainen stands semi-nude on the steel table, a machine gun in his hand, his expression manic and his body covered in blood.
The show emerges both as Trumbo originally intended – as a portrait of a horrific, humiliating fate and a scathing anti-war screed – and as a startling piece of theatre. The From Start To Finnish programme always throws up thought-provoking, boundary breaking shows. Hanna Vahtikari’s Raging Mother, also running at Zoo Southside, is one. Johnny Got His Gun is another. Fergus Morgan
Made in India/Britain ***
Pleasance Courtyard, until 29 August (not 23)
Rinkoo Barpaga has an individual perspective on life, as a Britain-Asian man from Birmingham who has grown up deaf. This has opened him up, as he describes it here, to “double discrimination” (also the title of a film he made for Channel 4 in 2015), but it also gives him a story with a unique and multi-faceted perspective which even other shows about race or disability can’t offer.
Barpaga’s story is told as a one-person monologue performed entirely in British Sign Language, with an actor reading the translation in spoken English from a podium at the side. For a hearing member of the audience, the effect is clear and easily understood. Barpaga was formerly a television sign language interpreter, and his personality feels big and clearly expressed through the use of his entire body in this very physical performance.
He tells a rich and involved tale of a young British-Asian kid growing up identifying with Mr T from The A-Team, who finds himself culturally and as part of a wider local deaf community while being taxied to a new school with a squad of young friends who share both elements to their background.
He visits family in India and struggles with his British identity on learning more about colonialism, and reveals racism in the deaf community, all the way building an engaging, entertaining and perfectly universal work of deaf representation. David Pollock