Festival reviews: Mess | The List | Thread | Hand Over Fist | Juana In A Million

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IF THIS were my real review of Caroline Horton’s Mess, I’d start off in a teasing way, giving the impression the show was just a bit of a giggle.

I’d talk about the songs performed to the live accompaniment of Seiriol Davies which are too quirky to be part of the real show, when they do it in front of a real audience, but are great fun here at the Traverse. And I’d string you along for a while about the hilariously strained expression Horton holds as she tries to maintain control over her unpredictable world, and about the well-meaning attempts of her cross-dressing stooge, Hannah Boyde, to help out.

In my real review, I’d keep that up for a paragraph or two before letting slip that, funny though it is, Mess is a whole lot more serious than it makes out. When they do the real show in the real theatre, they’ll have a job pitching the marketing right. That’s because, under the guise of the micro-managing Josephine, Horton is telling the true story of her own struggle with ­anorexia nervosa.

The control she seeks to exert over the show – which is obviously not perfect enough to be the real show – is the same neurotic control she ­attempted to hold over her teenage world. If the cosmos were beyond her influence, she could at least harness her food intake and keep an ounce-by-ounce eye on her weight. Perfect.

With the consequent strained relationships, interrupted studies and spell in a specialist hospital, Mess shouldn’t be a bundle of laughs and often it is not; in time, Horton gives due weight to the seriousness of her story. She offers a touching insight into the cruel grip of an eating disorder and a sense of the near impossibility of curing it in anything but the most patient and painstaking way. That she also makes it so enjoyable means it’s one show about anorexia you could recommend to anyone. And you don’t need to wait until they put on the real thing.

Another woman seeking to control her environment is played with characteristic compassion and authority by Maureen Beattie in The List. In Jennifer Tremblay’s play, staged by Stellar Quines in one of the vertiginous lecture theatres in Summerhall, she has escaped the city in the mistaken belief she would have more authority – over husband, children and daily routine – if she were living in the countryside.

Her compulsion to make lists, while keeping her house in squeaky-clean order, seems to stop short of OCD but, like Horton’s character, she shows all the symptoms of a woman struggling to keep a grip. The grim irony is that when tragedy really does strike, the meticulously kept lists prove no help at all. Under Muriel Romanes’ direction, with a literally striking set by John Byrne, Beattie builds a vivid and affecting portrait.

There are yet more affecting portraits of women losing control in Hand Over Fist by Dave Florez at the Pleasance and Thread by Jules Horne for Edinburgh’s Nutshell company at Assembly St Mark’s. In both cases, the subject is Alzheimer’s disease and both do a convincing, as well as tender, job of dramatising the decline of a degenerating brain.

In Hand Over Fist, Joanna Bending gives a superb performance as Emily, a woman for whom past, present and future have become one and the same. As she makes repeated attempts to tell an anecdote about a youthful romance, her character, indeed her very physical presence, changes dramatically by the line. At each attempt, the tangents become more surreal, the narrative less reliable, the definition of who she is less and less secure.

So it is with Claire Dargo’s Joan in Thread, a three-hander that starts delightfully as a church-hall beetle drive and develops into a sweet-natured memory play about two childhood friends and the man one of them marries. Memories, however, are what the 78-year-old Joan finds increasingly hard to hold on to, and 
Dargo carefully charts the stages from mystification to anger to confusion as the play itself darts backwards and forwards through time. It’s a lovely show, only a little spoiled by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it conclusion (I think I blinked).

Over at the Pleasance Dome, a woman who needs extra reserves of control is the young Mexican immigrant in Juana In A Million who arrives in London without a work permit, hoping she can escape a life blighted by poverty, murder and extortion rackets. She discovers a city where friendship is shallow and shortlived, where employers are cynical and opportunistic, and where a cheery disposition can soon be beaten down.

Writer/performer Vicky ­Araico Casas gives an unsentimental insight into the vulnerability of an illegal immigrant, but adds extra depth by setting her story in the context of many centuries of economic exploitation going right back to the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. In a performance laced with quiet humour and graced with dexterous physicality – not to mention a fine live musical accompaniment – it gives Juana In A Million a political edge that makes it more than just a pity-me story.

A quick mention of two other worthy shows. At the Bedlam, Scotland’s Tortoise in a Nutshell is presenting Grit, a poignant study of children ­living in war zones. It’s a beautiful show, full of rich object-theatre invention, demonstrating what you can achieve with little more than an overhead projector and a lot of cardboard.

Equally simple in presentation, rich in detail and clear in political intention is NOLA, a piece of verbatim theatre at the Underbelly by Look Left Look Right that captures the voices of those affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Brilliantly mimicking everyday speech, it brings home the human cost of this man-made disaster as well as reminding us of the environmental effects both of the spill itself and the clean-up operation.

As the Fringe gets into its stride, the Edinburgh International Festival has arrived in luminous style all over Arthur’s Seat in NVA’s majestic Speed Of Light. We’d all heard about Angus Farquhar’s London 2012-funded event in which a phalanx of volunteer runners would criss-cross the slopes of the city’s iconic peak wearing suits of lights ­powered by their own kinetic energy. But it is only when 
you climb the hill, in parties staggered at 15-minute intervals, all of you carrying 
your own glowing walking stick, that you appreciate what a mesmerising thing it is.

Surprisingly, it is not the athletic prowess of the performers you notice – although there is something pleasing about the human scale of their endeavour – as much as the abstract patterns they create, defining the contours of the after-hours landscape to a backdrop of stars and city lights. As you climb to the summit in a two-and-a-half hour trek, you look down to see silver starbursts, ­pulsing red blood cells and ice-blue butterflies. One minute, they are a Miro line, the next, a Jackson Pollock splatter.

Eventually, these images are accompanied by high-altitude harmonies, adding to the otherworldly loss of perspective in one of the city’s most familiar places.

If the rest of the EIF programme is half as good, 2012 will be a year to remember.

Mess, Traverse, until 26 August; The List, Summerhall, until 25 August; Thread, Assembly St Mark’s, until 26 August; Hand Over Fist, Pleasance, until 27 August; Juana In A Million, Pleasance Dome, until 26 August; Grit, Bedlam, until 25 August; NOLA, Underbelly, until 26 August; Speed of Light, Arthur’s Seat, until 1 September. www.edfringe.com, www.eif.co.uk