Edinburgh Fringe theatre reviews: The Grand Old Opera House Hotel | Adults | Lady Dealer | Let The Bodies Pile

A heartfelt boy-meets-girl romantic comedy and a sitcom-style exploration of sex and vice in Edinburgh are among the new theatre pieces getting to grips with modern-day Britain, finds Joyce McMillan.

The Grand Old Opera House Hotel, Traverse Theatre ****

Until 27 August

Adults, Traverse Theatre, ***

Until 27 August

Lady Dealer, Roundabout @ Summerhall ****

Until 27 August

Let The Bodies Pile, Gilded Balloon Teviot, ***

Let the Bodies Pile. Picture: Rosalind FurlongLet the Bodies Pile. Picture: Rosalind Furlong
Let the Bodies Pile. Picture: Rosalind Furlong

Until 28 August

The Edinburgh Fringe makes space for every kind of love story; usually the complicated and star-crossed variety, fraught with difficulties, disappointments and betrayals. In Isobel McArthur’s brilliant new comedy The Grand Old Opera House Hotel, though, the Traverse and co-producers Dundee Rep offer up nothing less than a pure and heartfelt boy-meets-girl romantic comedy, inspired by the rapturous power of great music; although in a setting that offers endless scope for the sharpest kind of social criticism and wisecracking satire.

As the action opens, on Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s eye-popping and ever-changing set, we find ourselves in the corridors of the Grand Old Opera House Hotel, where newbie employee Aaron is about to be trained up in the art of working impossibly long hours for rock-bottom wages, while always wearing a uniform and name-badge, and complying with no end of bland corporate gibberish.

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Aaron, though, is an imaginative sort, and has been told of the building’s history as an old opera house, before its transformation into a modern all-beige chain hotel; so when he hears beautiful and ethereal singing coming from one of the rooms, he naturally leaps to the conclusion that the female singing figure he glimpses is one of the building’s rumoured ghosts.

What follows is a wild and sometimes beautiful farce of slamming doors, lustful or raging guests, and wild misunderstandings, as Aaron and fellow room attendant Amy – the real source of the voice – gradually find their way towards one another, borne along on waves of the fabulous operatic music she loves, and which he comes to love as the story unfolds. Gareth Nicholls’s production is a masterpiece of perfect and hilarious comic timing throughout, and the seven-strong cast – including Ali Watt and Karen Fishwick as the lovers, with Barrie Hunter and Ann Louise Ross leading a dream team of guests and co-workers – are an absolute joy; not least in the moments when, in a breathtaking turn-up for the theatrical book, they simply switch from farce to opera, leaving behind the moral, aesthetic and economic squalor of 21st century corporate Britain for the sparkling poetry and majesty of the world’s greatest arias, and the life-affirming power of great art.

Kieran Hurley’s Adults, by contrast – also at the Traverse – is a comedy that takes a more jaded and downbeat look at love and sex in our time, although one with a strong undertow of poignancy and longing. In an effort to make a living in tough times, Edinburgh thirtysomething Zara has converted her flat into a mini-brothel, going into partnership with male prostitute Jay, who, despite being a 30-year-old dad, caters for clients who prefer “boys”.

Zara’s well-organised secret professional life begins to unravel, though, when her old school English teacher arrives at the door as one of Jay’s clients; and in no time the two are locked in a series of arguments over education and expectations, secrets and lies, respect and respectability, that only intensify when Jay finaly arrives with his screaming baby daughter, dumped on him by his ex.

Despite the strong dramatic potential of the situation – and some fine work from Dani Heron as Zara and Conleth Hill as Ian – it seems, in the end, that the situation comedy style of Adults sits uncomfortably with Kieran Hurley’s gifts for incisive social analysis and powerful poetic writing. Like the writers of No Love Songs and Heaven, both at at the Traverse, Hurley is preoccupied with the disappointments of parenthood, the economic struggles that face the younger generation, and the quest for meaning in middle life; but in Roxana Silbert’s production, his exploration of these themes fails to find its own rhythm and idiom, and dwindles towards an ending as subdued as it is inconclusive.

Like Zara in Adults, the sole character in Martha Watson Allpress’s powerful new near-monologue Lady Dealer, presented by Paines Plough at the Roundabout at Summerhall, is a woman of around 30, in Britain today, who find that the only way to empower herself is to take to a form of crime. Dealing drugs from her lonely room, Charly has come to love the feeling of being needed, at last, after a loveless childhood, and student years scarred by her sense of exclusion as a working-class girl at a posh university; but following a break-up with her girlfriend, she is beginning to realise that despite the busy buzz of her dealing life, transaction is no substitute for real connection.

When a power-cut leaves her “lifeline” telephones dead, she therefore spirals towards breakdown, a process strangely articulated by her posh neighbour Hugo’s eccentric Dad, who briefly visits her to buy some weed, and offers a poem. His brief presence can’t end Charly’s nightmare, though; and in Emily Aboud’s production, Alexa Davies delivers a searing and heartbreaking performance, as a woman struggling for survival in a society beset by a terrible loneliness, where real connection often seems like an impossible dream.

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For a truly dystopian vision of modern Britain, though, it’s worth taking look at Henry Naylor’s latest play Let The Bodies Pile, at the Gilded Balloon. Linking the horror of the 1990s Harold Shipman murders to the terrible pressures on elderly care that emerged during the pandemic, Let The Bodies Pile also features an alarming series of wild sexual fantasies about Matt Hancock, who looms large in the pandemic dreams of a cynical care worker.

The combination of the grotesque and the profoundly serious slightly misfires, in the end. Yet Naylor is courageous in tackling some deep truths about attitudes to older people and he and fellow actor Emily Carding deliver a bold and intriguing show, if one that sometimes undermines its own deepest insights.