Theatre review: James Rowland’s Songs of Friendship, Summerhall, Edinburgh

“When I come back I will be a performer, and all of this will be artifice,” intones James Rowland three times during the course of the evening, before dimming the lights with an air of ceremonial gravitas. What we are about to see, he’s told us, is the culmination of four years’ work; three individual storytelling plays of an hour’s duration, each premiered consecutively in the past three years, but not performed together (apart from limited previews) until now.

James Rowland’s Songs of Friendship, Summerhall – Cairns Lecture Theatre (Venue 26)****

“When I come back I will be a performer, and all of this will be artifice,” intones James Rowland three times during the course of the evening, before dimming the lights with an air of ceremonial gravitas. What we are about to see, he’s told us, is the culmination of four years’ work; three individual storytelling plays of an hour’s duration, each premiered consecutively in the past three years, but not performed together (apart from limited previews) until now.

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In Team Viking, childhood friends Jim (Rowland’s ‘character’; he’s vague about the truth of these tales), Sarah and Tom come to terms 
with the latter’s cancer 
diagnosis, and act upon his insistence that he be given a Viking funeral; in A Hundred Different Words for Love, Sarah and her partner Emma shepherd Jim through a beautiful, if doomed, romance; and in Revelations, Jim agrees to become the surrogate father of Sarah and Emma’s baby.

Each story is perfectly pitched, their easy but genuine humour delivered with the light touch of a stand-up comedian, while the many emotional hits are landed with masterful dramatic urgency.

Over the course of the evening Rowland confronts us with birth, death, the inescapable intergenerational friction and love of family, and the enduring value of friendship. As it becomes clear that this story is Sarah’s and Jim is an admiring supporting character, the perfectly-crafted recurring motifs of each tale amplify them into one mighty, passionate epic.

It’s fair to say the format alone might turn off casual audiences. In fact, any four-hour solo storytelling extravaganza which finishes well after midnight with a naked man turning cartwheels across the stage sounds like the height of toxic Fringe self-indulgence. Please, please don’t let yourself be put off by doubts 
about the scheduling of the show, however, for Rowland’s work instead reveals itself 
as one of those singular, thrillingly special experiences which the Fringe can provide.

David Pollock

Until 25 August. Tomorrow 9pm.