Traverse Theatre, until August 27
The Pleasance, until August 30
DAVID Mamet talks about the ‘Death of my kitten’ speech - that point in a play, usually three-quarters of the way through, when the writer interrupts the action with a pretty monologue. It often begins: "When I was young I had a kitten..."
There are times when Linda McLean’s Shimmer seems to be back-to-back ‘Death of my kitten’ speeches. The play is about six characters reflecting on their past while stuck in a bed and breakfast somewhere near Loch Lomond on a day of torrential rain (gloriously realised on Monica Frawley’s set).
The exchange is simple. Three women seek shelter as they journey to Iona in search of a miracle to cure the youngest of her terminal illness. Finding three men, they ask for little more than a cup of tea. But by letting us hear their inner thoughts, McLean turns a passing encounter into something of substance. Each stranger reminds the other of a lost loved one, their conversation haunted by ghosts of the past and, indeed, the future.
The difficulty with this is that where the audience’s impulse is to move forwards, McLean’s technique is to go backwards. We are overwhelmed with words, stories, images and memories, all beautifully and poetically put, but essentially filling the void where the play’s action would normally be.
With its repetitions and non-naturalistic commentary, it is a bold, witty and adventurous experiment - reminiscent of the structural games played by David Greig and Suspect Culture in shows such as Mainstream and Timeless. McLean shows a dazzling command of structure, the play echoing, reflecting and, shimmering against itself like a recurring dream. And she keeps things anchored with some hilarious one-liners.
As it builds towards its final emotional punch, therefore, Shimmer is a play you can love and be irritated by in equal measure. You applaud her daring while wishing she’d come to the point. In Lynne Parker’s keenly focused production, the end does just about justify the means, like a jigsaw puzzle awaiting a crucial piece.
Sharp performances, as ever, from Una McLean as the Glasgow matriarch claiming second sight, Hilary Lyon as her stoical daughter, and Lesley Hart level-headedly venturing towards death.
I’VE BEEN BANGING on to anyone who’ll listen about the deleterious effect of the Edinburgh Fringe’s one-hour timeslots. All those playwrights shoe-horning their ideas into 60 minutes; all those directors skimping on the set. Even worse, these shows then tour the UK, subjecting a more leisurely audience to their half-baked ideas.
But I’m going to eat my words. After spending a day at cafdirect’s 5065 Lift, where no show is longer than 30 minutes, an hour seems an extravagance. And sets? Why bother when you can express everything you want in the confines of a metal box that’s smaller than your average toilet cubicle?
On Wednesday I booked myself into eight shows back-to-back at the Fringe’s most peculiar venue, in a grassy corner of the Pleasance.
What’s immediately apparent is that the very constraints of this space - literally an elevator with two sets of sliding doors - fuel the imagination. And when the audience, which never numbers more than a dozen, is standing shoulder to shoulder with the actors, there is no room for sloppiness or short-cuts. Even the weakest show has a rare and thrilling intimacy.
This is especially true when the standard of acting is so very high. I’ll be happy if I don’t see performances better than those of Sheena Irving and Elicia Daly in Fanny & Faggot for the rest of the Fringe. Better still are the same two actresses, along with Charlotte Palmer, Fiona Paul and Felicity Well, in the utterly superb Patricia Quinn Saved my Life.
It’s not just the nerve of staging a play for five players in such a miniscule space, it’s the hilarious and joyful exuberance of the performances that will keep you smiling for the rest of the week.
Alison Carr’s play is a camp tribute to Patricia Quinn, best known as Magenta in The Rocky Horror Show. Featuring two look-alike fans stuck in a lift, it is silly, frivolous and consummately done in Sam Hoyle’s production.
Jack Thorne’s Fanny & Faggott is an unsettling drama, inspired by the notorious Mary Bell killings of the 1960s, that switches from comedy to horror with alarming speed, and shows how thin the line can be between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
For more funny and contemplative drama, try Stephen Keyworth’s Honolulu (actually two plays on alternate days), which tries to reconcile the hatred between Israeli and Palestinian and is thus a valuable companion piece to When the Bulbul Stopped Singing at the Traverse and The Situation Comedy at the Pleasance.
Meanwhile, Charlatan puts a dark spin on the reality TV debate, The Aquatic Ape is a funny take on marital discord and Aliens are Scary is a daft B-movie pastiche. Finally, with its cocoa and cushions, Julie Balloo’s Morpheus Descending is an anthology of subverted bedtime stories and a delightfully funny way to finish your Fringe day. Unless you’re claustrophobic or unsteady on your pins, I can’t recommend it enough.