Fringe theatre reviews: Happy Meal | Bloody Elle | Intruder/Intruz | Ode to Joy

There’s an abundance of LGBTQ+ love stories at this year’s Fringe; the results are hard-hitting and thought-provoking, writes Joyce McMillan

Allie Daniel in Happy Meal at the Traverse.
Allie Daniel in Happy Meal at the Traverse.

Love, actually. Amid all the intensity and bitterness of the current debate over sex, gender and identity, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the simple quest for human fulfilment that lies at the heart of many LGBTQ+ stories; and the vast new possibilities for love, romance and joy that have opened up for gay and non-binary people, over the past generation.

There’s no chance of forgetting that truth on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, though, where celebrations of gay and non-binary love abound, and are as full of fun, wit, lust and tenderness as of apprehension about the continuing threats that many LGBTQ+ people still face; and those first tentative steps towards happiness are explored in fine and touching style in Tabby Lamb’s light-touch new show Happy Meal (****), given its world premiere at the Traverse over the weekend.

Happy Meal tells the story of Bette and Alex, two transgender teenagers who find one another on the internet, become close friends, but then experience whole worlds of estrangement, as relatively middle-class Alex makes a transition to student life as Alec, while Bette struggles to come out as trans to anyone except her online best friend. Played out on a witty set by Ben Stones that fully captures the intensity of the online life of 21st century teenagers, Happy Meal features two gorgeous performances from Allie Daniel and Sam Crerar; in a simple one-hour tale of young love made complicated by society’s attitudes to shifting gender, but now free enough to find a true happy ending, to the cheers of the Traverse audience.

The entwined themes of class, culture and sexuality also feature strongly in Lauryn Redding’s superb 90-minute “gig theatre” show Bloody Elle (****), at the Traverse after a hugely successful Manchester run earlier this year. Redding’s solo play, studded with her own magnificent original songs, tells the story of Elle, a working-class Oldham girl who works happily in a Chip’n’Dip, writes songs in her spare time, and lives in a tower block called Cloud Rise; but who finds her life radically disturbed when a posh student called Evie joins the staff on a holiday job, and Elle falls deeply in love with her.

In a sense, the story of their affair is a simple one; they meet, they love, they part. Yet within this framework, Redding explores layers of tensions around class and identity, the difficulty for Elle of coming out as gay in a working-class community, the pressures on Evie to achieve a conventional rich suburban life. In the end Elle makes her escape, into a creative life as a musician and a gay woman; Evie’s fate is more complex. And Redding’s beautifully told tale comes as a reminder that while much has changed, there are still places and times when it is all but impossible for young people to be true to themselves, whatever that truth may be.

Remi Rachuba is a Polish writer and actor whose search for fulfilment brought him to Scotland, where he was finally able to train for his dream career in theatre. The journey was not a simple one, though; and in his complex and disturbing solo show Intruder/Intruz (***), playing at Summerhall, Rachuba chronicles both his life in Warsaw - where he worked as an English teacher - and the violence and bullying he encountered while working in Scotland, where rather than receding, his fears of being followed and threatened, as a non-macho man going about his city life, grew ever stronger.

In Rachuba’s play, it’s the fear of the violent Intruder, in the end, that is more debilitating than any violent reality. It is a painful thing, though, to see Rachuba beginning to learn the Scots tongue solely through the language of abuse and exclusion he has to tolerate, not least from the children he teaches; in a show that sometimes confuses, with its looping and repeating flashback narratives, but is always both hard-hitting and thought-provoking.

There’s no such confusion, though, in James Ley’s Ode To Joy (****), also at Summerhall, a celebration of gay sex so exuberant and explicit that the programme features a 14-word ‘glossary of gay’, full of eye-popping terms for various forms of gay sex, and the drugs that often accompany the experience.

Like Ley’s equally riotous gay love story Wilf - now back at the Traverse after a huge success there last winter - Ode To Joy is not a story for the faint-hearted, as it charts the journey of its hero Gordon, a civil servant with the Scottish government, from timid gay adventures with “Prince Charming types”, to full-on nights of hedonism at the famous Berghain club in Berlin. Brian Evans turns in a beautifully funny and engaging performance as Gordon, alongside a riotous Marc McKinnon and Sean Connor as his chums Tom and Marcus, aka Manpussy and Cumpig. And in the end, he not only finds love as well as wild promiscuous sex, but also sees a political dream come true, as - come 2029 - Scotland finally rejoins the European Union; in more senses of the word “union” than any playwright, till now, has dared to dramatise.

Happy Meal, Bloody Elle and Ode to Joy until 28 August, Intruder/Intruz until 14 August