Fringe reviews: The Plague Thing | Detachment | The Murder(ed) Musketeers | Those Girls | Bookshelf Ballad

This year, experienced Fringe producers theSpaceUK have invited companies to contribute new work for a virtual line-up. The response has been substantial, writes Fiona Shepherd

The Murder(ed) Musketeers.

The Plague Thing ***

Detachment ***

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The Murder(ed) Musketeers ***

Those Girls ****

Bookshelf Ballad ****

For the past 25 years, theSpaceUK organisation has colonised hotel function spaces and meeting rooms across the city, and created a buzzing hub at the Surgeons Hall. In keeping with the open access nature of the event, the quality of their programme varies considerably but gems emerge. Fringe First Award winning companies such as Breach Theatre and Little Bulb found their first Edinburgh homes at theSpace.

This year, the producers invited companies to contribute new work for a virtual Fringe line-up and the response has been substantial. [email protected] is an online arts festival in its own right, with eighty bespoke shows, mostly comprising new writing, across the disciplines. Some shows are broadcast live on Saturday evenings, but most are available to view anytime, with new content added every Saturday.

Theatre has always been a mainstay of theSpace programme and so it is in this online incarnation with many companies making the most of the new strictures. Nottingham New Theatre’s diptych, Spring and Awakening, based on Frank Wedekind’s classic exploration of adolescent sexuality, literally confines the teenagers to their bedrooms where they communicate their desires by phone or straight to camera. There are bedroom balladeers reaching out to those who feel isolated, dysfunctional Zoom rehearsals for ill-fated new musicals, and even an old-fashioned radio play, The Boom Room, about new-fangled digital relations.

Inevitably, lockdown conditions have bred a number of lockdown stories. The Plague Thing by Marcia Kelson is a short and bittersweet smartphone dispatch from elderly Enid (Carol Hudson) who is struggling to grasp the changes wrought by “the plague thing”, not least the heightened risk of her care home environment, nor the remote anguish of the relatives she no longer recognises.

Detachment is a bite-sized revengers’ tragedy borne of covid cauldron conditions. ICU doctor Toby (Malcolm Jeffries) and his shielding pregnant partner V (Gemma Wray) speak every day by Zoom but this particular covid conversation is different, as Toby relates a series of spiralling unfortunate events involving financial fraud, vandalism and worse. The scenario seems scarcely credible but is apparently based on real events. Crazy times indeed.

Other productions take a more imaginative or playful approach to the digital tools at their disposal. Cumbrian company Highly Suspect, fresh from successful Fringe runs in 2018 and 2019, are not going to let a pandemic get in the way of one of their signature grisly murder mysteries.

The filmed version of The Murder(ed) Musketeers begins on a stage set at Carlisle’s West Walls Theatre, where the players lay their socially distanced scene for a Cluedo-style escapade, complete with groanworthy puns and dastardly double entendres.

But their production of Agatha Mystery’s The Rattrap is quickly derailed by backstage murder most foul and, with the fourth wall well and truly trampled, the actors repair to their individual dressing rooms to apprise the audience of their respective versions of events via four-way video call.

The old school conventions of the murder mystery play remain, with “diverse” characters – here be all manner of upper class twittery – convoluted set-ups and shoals of red herrings crammed into a fast-paced 45 minutes. Thankfully for the serious sleuthers, the pause button allows for some reflective sifting of the evidence, which is available for closer scrutiny on the company’s website – as is the final reveal of the culprit. The whole enterprise is somewhat homespun but at least makes a decent stab at online adaptation.

Better still are the productions which largely ditch theatrical elements in favour of crafting atmospheric, impressionistic short films. Writer/performer Abigail Cook has repurposed her play Those Girls as a poem, comprising incisive snapshots of adolescence in all its debilitating pain and liberated beauty, recited by teenagers from her former secondary school, and delivered as a hazy, haunting cut-and-paste collage of testimony and imagery.

Actress and writer Anne Rabbitt was due to attend her first Fringe since 1986. Instead, she embraces the new normal with a ten-minute meditation, inspired by the national lockdown sport of book-spotting on the shelves behind the self-isolating TV pundits.

Bookshelf Ballad uses only the titles from the books on Rabbitt’s own shelves to weave an eloquent poetic narrative, which is accompanied by a beautiful, hypnotic film made by her son Finn Rabbitt Dove. Together, they have produced a small but perfectly formed love letter to life and literature which demonstrates that there is no lockdown on imagination.

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