At a desk in a quiet corner of Edinburgh’s Central Library, Veronica Leer is racked with consternation. She tells us she’s a librarian whose colleague has disappeared. After three days, all that remains is a set of clues the woman left behind. Leer hands out alphabet ciphers and catalogue numbers, asking if we can get into teams to figure out what it means.
This is the start of Visible Fictions’ The Hidden, staged as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and pretty soon, we’re hunting for books in the true-crime section. Oddly, nobody tells us to keep the noise down even as our excitement mounts. Finding the first volume, we’re directed to a page with paragraphs singled out in highlighter pen. One page leads to another and then to the American literature section where another book leads us deeper into the library.
It’s hard to know what to make of it all. Are these the paranoid notes of a disturbed mind or do the references to Orwell’s 1984 and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 suggest the surveillance state is now a reality? As we scurry along the shelves, Leer’s look of terror suggests it could be the latter.
Technically, The Hidden is aimed at teenagers, but my all-adult group took it with the utmost seriousness, not least because the problem-solving tests are genuinely tricky (if, indeed, they even have an answer). On one level, director Dougie Irvine’s interactive quest, co-created with Cameron Hall, is a playful way of teaching cataloguing and alphabet skills. In an age of fake news, however, it is also about the importance of fact-checking and cross-referencing.
Coming back together to pool our evidence, we find we have pointers to portals, ghosts, mental disturbances and more. It’s almost coherent, but not quite, leaving us with one invaluable conclusion: “semper quaere”– always search.
Also aimed at teenagers and appealing equally to adults is The End Of Eddy, an inspired adaptation of the autobiographical novel by Édouard Louis about growing up amid the violence, racism and homophobia of a depressed village in northern France. Staged in the Edinburgh International Festival by Stewart Laing’s Untitled Projects in collaboration with London’s Unicorn, it fields two bright young actors, Alex Austin and Kwaku Mills, playing not only the victimised Eddy Bellegueule but also his hard-pressed parents and bullying schoolmates.
They do this by means of pre-recorded footage screened on the four monitors lined up across the front of the stage. Interacting with the TV images they are at once oppressor and oppressed, abuser and abused, giving Pamela Carter’s adaptation a playfulness that belies the harshness of the material. Frank in its discussion of sex and violence, it does great justice to the book (published in 2014 when Louis was just 21) while taking on a form that is theatrical and adventurous.
Playing to a slightly younger audience, the Scientific Romance theatre company uses the more traditional techniques of puppetry and illusion to stage The Time Machine by HG Wells. Actors Rick Conte, Matt Rudkin and Deborah Arnott have fun playing up the Victorian melodrama – big moustaches, top hats and all. Andy Cannon’s production gives us a futuristic vision from the past, an era when observing the inhabitants of Earth in 800,000 years’ time seems as logical as exploring the outer reaches of the British empire. It ends bleakly but it’s colourfully done.
I didn’t expect Old Boy to appeal to children but the toddler next to me seemed as captivated by the Glas(s) Performance show as I was. The Glasgow company specialises in putting real people on stage; this time it’s grandfathers and their grandsons talking sweetly, movingly, wittily about their relationships. On a circle-themed set by Rachel O’Neill (balls, globes, rings and a round playing space), three sets of boys and men take turns to comment on the circle of life.
Under the direction of Jess Thorpe and Tashi Gore, they play to their strengths, talking about the things that connect them across the generations – music, sport, art – and reflecting on the relationships with family members who have gone before. Sometimes remarkable, sometimes commonplace, their stories are touching in their honesty, offering a rare insight into male camaraderie. It is one of the Fringe’s most life-affirming shows.
Demonstrating the next generation is in good hands is the Network Ensemble, a group of young actors put together by the Scottish Drama Training Network as a first step towards the professional theatre. Working with director Caitlin Skinner, they are making the connection between the personal and the political in Propeller, a spirited ensemble drama written by Rachael Keller, Poppy Smith and Ross Donnachie.
Inspired by the Levenmouth rail campaign and set in a fictional small-town Scotland, it’s about the politicisation of a gang of friends who start to believe they can change things after protesting about the lack of public transport in their area. They go from apathy to attack, from defeat to radicalisation, widening their vision to other social issues as they go.
The future is looking a good deal less optimistic in Let’s Inherit The Earth, a wayward piece of punk absurdism by Morna Pearson staged by Scotland’s Dogstar and Sweden’s Profilteatern. Directed by Ben Harrison, it’s a cartoonish satire, sometimes laboured, sometimes inspired, about a world suffering environmental catastrophe while its inhabitants carry on regardless. Turtles belch up plastic, Scandinavia burns and Scotland sinks while the rich drink champagne and green activists wonder why they bothered. It’s an uneven production slowed by cumbersome set changes, but it has an idiosyncratic energy and a vigorously enjoyable playlist of angry new-wave songs by Jonny Hardie.
The playlist for Morna Young’s Aye, Elvis is drawn, as you’d expect, from the Presley catalogue. Less expected is it’s reinterpreted for the Doric tongue. And sung by a woman. One of the joys of Joyce Falconer’s central performance is it makes you believe there could be a female Elvis impersonator doing the karaoke clubs of Aberdeen right now. And one of the joys of Ken Alexander’s production is how perfectly it knows its audience, delivering a deliriously silly tale of blind ambition with a romcom heart.
The Hidden, Central Library, run ended (on tour in the autumn); The End Of Eddy, the Studio, ends today (MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, 6 September, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 18 September); The Time Machine, Scottish Storytelling Centre, run ended; Old Boy, Scottish Storytelling Centre, ends today; Propeller, Pleasance Courtyard, ends tomorrow; Let’s Inherit The Earth, Pleasance Courtyard, ends today (on tour, 9 October-17 November); Aye, Elvis, Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre, ends today