We are in a land like ours in all respects but one: it is the duty of every citizen to hold onto a string that rises – who knows where? – into the sky. It’s a bit of a chore, but the people have always put up with it. Until now, that is. In a virus-like wave of civil disobedience, they have started letting go of their strings and carrying on their lives unencumbered.
Chrysalis festival, Traverse, Edinburgh ****
This is the scenario of How To Save The World… Ish, a compelling piece of storytelling drama by Beacon Young Company. It is staged as part of Chrysalis, a festival that brings together the finest examples of youth theatre from around the UK with a view to entertain, provoke and inspire. In a rich and rewarding weekend of shows, the Greenock company demonstrates the power of a good story colourfully told.
In the fluid ensemble production, directed by Nicholas Barton-Wines and devised by the company, it’s down to the teenage Sophie to alert the world of the catastrophic consequences of letting go of the strings. She faces an enormous challenge. Not even her father takes her seriously, let alone the bullying girls at school. The easier option would be to give in.
For a while the play threatens to become a conservative fable about upholding tradition for no better reason than blind faith. But it’s not that at all. Sophie is driven not by superstition or habit, but by wisdom passed down to her. She knows the strings really do have a purpose. What emerges is a life-affirming allegory about fighting for what you believe and about resistance in the face of mass selfishness.
Like all the shows, it is rigorously performed, the actors’ personalities shining through even as they operate as a tightly drilled ensemble. It is not the weekend’s most theatrically adventurous show – that prize would go to the apocalyptic dance-theatre cabaret of Dark Mechanics by Livingston’s Firefly Arts – but it is the most coherently structured and therefore the most gripping.
Nor is Beacon the only company taking on the weight of the world, although its response is the most positive. On the one hand, Dark Mechanics offers a nihilistic view of a population of lab rats buckling under the pressures of 21st-century life. On the other, Reading Rep’s Queer Fish is a raw, vulgar and vulnerable vision of hedonistic escape. Sitting somewhere between Sarah Kane, Irvine Welsh and Jean Genet, it is a beat-driven, pill-popping three-hander that makes up for its narrative uncertainty with the grimy, impressionistic texture of abusive relationships, sexual dysfunction and desperate excess. It is thrilling and disturbing.
Tackling a delicate subject with wit and flare is There Is A Light: Brightlight, staged by Manchester’s Contact Young Company under the direction of Glasgow’s Adura Onashile. Plays about medical conditions are in vogue, but the experiences of teenage cancer patients have been little heard, not to mention the awkward issues, from sex to survival, that the play tackles with brash humour and sensitivity.