Edinburgh Fringe Festival preview: The Intervention

ONE of the surprise hits of last year’s Fringe was a one-man show with the colourful name of Somewhere Beneath it All, a Small Fire Burns Still. It starred stand-up Phil Nichol as a man we assumed to be a misogynistic misfit until, midway through, he appeared to have an onstage breakdown before revealing his character was actually a paraplegic man desperately craving affection. It was as bold as it was unsettling, and The Scotsman duly awarded it a Fringe First.

The author was Dave Florez, known on the London playwriting scene as a name to watch and this year we have two chances to see what else he is capable of. First, he is working once more with Hannah Eidinow – director of five Fringe First-winning shows – on Hand Over Fist, which explores the troubling subject of Alzheimer’s disease. He is also reunited with Nichol and the Comedians Theatre company to take a comic look at the subject of alcohol addiction in The Intervention.

Hand Over Fist is “a brilliant piece of writing”, says Eidinow. “It’s incredibly upsetting as you get to the end, which creeps up on you. Why do I spend every year in one particular rehearsal room, in tears?”

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Nichol is equally enthusiastic about The Intervention. “This play is a really good sign to anyone in the industry that, not only can he write the monologue you saw last year, which was a piece of postmodern, visceral drama, but he is also able to write rock-solid dialogue. It’s a very modern piece, but it’s also timeless. He’s an incredibly sophisticated writer and his attention to detail is better than anything I’ve seen.”

It is through the Comedians Theatre Company that Florez developed The Intervention. He wrote the part of Zac, an alcoholic with skeletons, with Nichol in mind and is full of praise for his lead actor: “Phil has got a wonderful watchable quality and an energy you can’t buy or learn in drama schools.” Waen Shepherd (The Inbetweeners) and Jan Ravens (Dead Ringers) are also in the seven-strong cast.

The Intervention is black comedy about an attempt by Zac’s friends and family to redeem him before it’s too late. The play, has its roots in his own less-than-successful attempt to help out a friend, whose addictive behaviour had led to a bust-up with his family.

“He was kicked out of his father’s house and was living on the streets,” says Florez. “I tried to do a one-man intervention on him and on his father. It didn’t work as well as it might. I was young and inexperienced. His father would not listen to me or give him the benefit of the doubt and, to be fair, he had his reasons. That got me thinking about how these things could play out.”

Nichol is famed for his reserves of his energy and is no stranger to the excesses of the Edinburgh Fringe, but has managed to avoid the dark addictions of his character. “As much as I have had a career of carousing, I’ve never felt I was in a situation where I was addicted to anything – other than a lust for life,” he says.

“On the other hand, I’ve got friends who have fallen by the wayside, so I know how destructive it can be. I’ve had long weekends and benders and I know what it’s like to wake up with a hangover, but I don’t think I’d put myself in the same category as this character who has suffered at the hands of his father through the cycle of abuse that is handed down through generations.”

Performed on a single set in real time, The Intervention is designed to give the whole ensemble a turn in the spotlight. It is custom-built for the company’s character comedians. Florez says he relishes the chance to write with stand-ups in mind: “You’ve got comedians who have never had any acting training, but it’s just innately in them.

“Obviously, the crossover is massive with stand-up and storytelling, and how storytelling is brought into acting – it’s all connected. Also comedians take risks in their everyday life, getting up on stage and being very vulnerable in front of a bunch of strangers every night and dealing with heckles. That must come to the fore when being emotionally vulnerable with the character.”

Meanwhile, Hand Over Fist is the second part of a trilogy about mental and physical disability that began with Somewhere Beneath it All…. Here, Florez dramatises the impact of dementia by casting relatively young actor, Joanna Bending, as Emily, an 80-year-old woman conscious that her memory is slipping away.

“Alzheimer’s is something that’s happened in my family, but I wanted to make it relevant to the youth of today,” says the 32-year-old. “A lot of people who would usually come and see my work would probably get turned off at the idea: Alzheimer’s is boring, it’s an old-people’s concern. It would be interesting to get the kind of people who normally see my work thinking about that sort of thing and seeing if it engages them, because it’s something that could happen to any of us.”

By putting Emily’s younger self on stage, he aims to give the story extra poignancy. “You get a wonderful defamiliarisation,” he says. “It’s a late-twenties/early-thirties version of herself, telling her life story, her love story, over and over again until she gets it right, because the memory is fading and she can’t quite grasp on to it for long enough.”

• The Intervention, The Assembly Rooms, until 26 August; Hand Over Fist, Pleasance Courtyard, until 27 August.