Fringe theatre reviews: This is Paradise | Eavesdropping | On Your Bike

There's a strand of playwriting about Ireland - born towards the end of the 20th century - that takes the art of monologue storytelling to such a pitch that the action described by the lone speaker unrolls in the mind like a painfully vivid film.

Eavesdropping

Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, Conor McPherson’s The Weir, Mark O’Rowe’s Howie The Rookie, and more recently the searing stage version of Emear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing, all use this technique with shattering power, casting the audience as witness in ways that are both compelling and demanding; and now, out of Glasgow, comes Michael John O’Neill’s new monologue This Is Paradise (*****), a stunning and beautiful addition to this body of work, set in Northern Ireland on the eve of the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, in April 1998.

For McNeill’s character, Kate, though - played with a fierce, fragile strength and subtlety by Amy Molloy, in this Traverse production by Katherine Nesbitt - peace is a concept that seems elusive, if not impossible. She is now 30, and living with a loving man she calls Brendy; but her life has been shaped by her passionate teenage relationship with a much older man, Diver, who was deeply involved in the violence of the Troubles, and whose nihilistic, almost ecstatic approach to those acts of violence has seared itself into her, as a reality she cannot forget. So when Diver’s most recent teenage girlfriend calls, saying that she has left him, and is worried about his mental state, Kate - who is now pregnant - sets off from Belfast to the north coast, to check on the man who once dominated her life.

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The story she tells is so vivid - and sometimes fiercely comic as well as tragic - that we can almost taste it, as she tracks down Diver’s bleak seaside rooming-house, and tries to find some closure to their intense relationship, while fighting off a threatened miscarriage that she profoundly dreads. The story ends on a note of hope. Yet as an 80-minute journey into the deepest levels at which violence and despair can seep into a human soul, breeding a dark cynicism that is simultaneously seductive and lethal, This Is Paradise represents a hugely powerful record of the human price of conflict; and of the depth of the healing work that needs to be done, when the guns and bombs finally - perhaps - fall silent.

Also at the Traverse, in the final week of the theatre’s limited but strikingly powerful 2021 Festival programme, is Eavesdropping (****), a complex and ambitious 80-minute walking audio show written by Hannah Lavery and Sarah McGillivray for ThickSkin theatre’s lockdown Walk This Show project, and directed by Jonnie Riordan with music and sound by Finn Anderson. Divided into nine sections, with alternating writers, Eavesdropping confronts the realities of city life from a range of unexpected and unsettling angles, as it leads lone audience members on a walk that ranges from the glamorous canal basin off Fountainbridge, through the back streets of Tollcross, to the margins of the Meadows.

Most of the stories are not specific to Edinburgh. They feature invisible zero hours workers having a quick cigarette in a back court, a slightly desperate single woman lusting for love amid the new blocks of executive flats, an ancient witch-like spirit of place among the trees of the meadows, and the voice of a locked-down writer questioning the whole idea of audience, as we return down Lady Lawson Street. There is, though, one happy couple remembering an early courtship that took place 20 years ago around these very streets; and although the format of Eavesdropping hardly invites closure, the cast of Saskia Ashdown, Reuben Joseph, Sally Reid and Julie Wilson Nimmo perform each sequence with such care, focus and energy that the overall effect is brilliantly life-enhancing.

If the plight of “invisible workers” in a busy city features strongly in Eavesdropping, it is the whole subject of On Your Bike (****), the latest musical from the Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society who, back in 2018, gave us what is now the global smash-hit musical Six, about the six wives of Henry VIII. Playing at the Space at Surgeon’s Hall, On Your Bike is a romantic musical comedy about two young food delivery riders for a company called Eateroo, who gradually fall in love, while he disentangles himself from a brief romance with an upwardly-mobile Eateroo management type, and she falls off her bike, only to discover that Eateroo have never heard of sick pay.

There’s something tantalising about the sight of today’s debt-ridden students, raised in a post-Thatcher world, almost literally having to reinvent the political wheel when it comes to the basic facts of capitalism, and the need for trade unions. Yet the songs are good, the voices terrific, the staging small but slick, and the energy impressive; and while it’s difficult to imagine On Your Bike going global in quite the style of Six, it’s a show that thoroughly deserves the large and enthusiastic audiences it’s attracting to what is by a long way the busiest live venue, on this strange - but also strangely vibrant - Edinburgh Fringe of 2021.

This Is Paradise at the Traverse Theatre until 29 August, and online from 1 September. Eavesdropping available via the Traverse until 17 September. On Your Bike at [email protected]’s Hall until 28 August.