Fringe theatre reviews: YOU ARE GOING TO DIE | Certain Death and Other Considerations | When We Died | The Last Show Before We Die

References to death feature in the titles of 296 shows at this year’s Fringe. Sally Stott explores how reflecting on the end of things has inspired unique comedy, morbid drama and a clever show about its own demise

YOU ARE GOING TO DIE, Summerhall (Venue 26) ****

until 27 August

Certain Death and Other Considerations, ZOO Playground (Venue 186) ***

until 27 August

When We Died, Summerhall (Venue 26) ****

until 27 August

The Last Show Before We Die, Summerhall ROUNDABOUT @ Summerhall (Venue 26A) ****

Adam Scott-Rowley in YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. Picture: Ryan BuchananAdam Scott-Rowley in YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. Picture: Ryan Buchanan
Adam Scott-Rowley in YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. Picture: Ryan Buchanan

until 27 August

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There are 296 shows at this year's Fringe with ‘death’ ‘dead’ or ‘die’ in the title. It feels a bit of a morbid thing to be checking for a Sunday theatre review, but then ‘dying’ on stage isn’t uncommon and if you’re lucky sometimes it’s a deliberate part of the show, rather than one of the actors struggling. And if you’re really lucky it’s Adam Scott-Rowley really struggling, naked on a toilet, his face filled with a rotating range of emotions – horror, anger, sadness, defiance – as he confronts his grotesque bodily demise.

YOU ARE GOING TO DIE is a funny, provocative and oddly comforting exploration of the physical and psychological challenges of dying. Is there really such a thing as ‘a good death’? The presence of the toilet perhaps provides the answer, but the piece is also a strange celebration of an eccentric bunch of characters on a psychedelic journey into the bright white light of who-knows-where. Scott-Rowley is a remarkably talented performer, who feels less like he’s playing these strange creatures than being possessed by them – the effeminate and the masculine, the bombastic and the scared. Their end-of-life snapshots are frequently shocking and absurd, but also surprisingly liberating – a collection of half-recalled, far-fetched insights that are crumbing along with the bodies they belong to. Accept the pain and be free is the bold suggestion that comes towards the end, a cackling devil-like figure ever-present and defying us to give it a try. A musical number that’s as explicit as it is ridiculous firmly invites us to see the sillier side of our shared situation. Time is all we have is the final message, and not enough of it to spend living in fear.

In Certain Death and Other Considerations, there is a ticking clock pinned to the wall. Here, we’ve got just under 80 years until the end of the world, but perhaps significantly less until the end of some of the characters’ relationships. Whether it’s the apocalypse, infidelity or awkward conversations with a surrogate mother who’s going to bring a baby into it all for money, suburban life in this middle-class American neighbourhood is teetering dangerously on the edge of a slice of gluten-free bruschetta. Question the science behind the doomsday prediction and risk social exclusion, as one man finds out, but this is really a piece that has more in common with Dallas than it does a dystopia, where each of the amiable friends must deal with their own emotional challenges – which they successfully do, with true Hollywood flair, by talking things through. It’s funny and touching, but ‘The Timer’ is often forgotten, raising the question of whether it’s really needed in what is otherwise a perfectly good, if tonally familiar, comedy.

Time flies, and it also heals – in the same way embalming a man’s body does in Alexandra Donnachie’s When We Died. She plays Rachel, a polished professional in “her usual black ensemble” – the kind of person who might eventually end up with all of our bodies. Today, faced with the corpse of a man who damaged her in life, she is confronted with the question: can she treat his body with her usual compassion when he previously subjected hers to such violence? After all, he’s no longer able to consent to what she’s about to do. As she closes his mouth, glues his eyes and drains his blood, the process of the embalming begins – and it’s a grimly fascinating one that also helps Rachel, who doesn’t like being direct, to tell us her story.

As she revisits the past, different kinds of death are explored: the literal, physical kind, and the unseen psychological one where a part of a person ‘dies’ when something traumatic happens to them. Both the violence and care directed towards other people’s bodies is juxtaposed in a way that is striking, a genuinely original premise in a stunning little script that reveals the trauma behind a life shattered, but one that also finds strength and a way to continue through the shards. Finally, Rachel, aided by her therapy sessions, is able to give herself the support that she so effortlessly offers others. “He’s got away with it,” she says, “but he’s gone.”

In The Last Show Before We Die, two semi-naked bodies writhe on the floor, a bundle of knotted, torn nylon, accompanied by harder, faster, electronica music that builds to a crescendo before… bang! Ticker tape covers the stage. Welcome to the end. And the beginning. “Death and rebirth,” Mary (Higgins) and Ell (Potter) helpfully explain, in this joyous and sometimes sad show about endings, be these lives, relationships, household chores, or this evening.

Mary and El used to be partners, and also used to do shows together (Hotter and Fitter) at places like the Traverse and Soho Theatre. Now they’re housemates contemplating whether this will be their last performance ever. And if it is, why is it so difficult to do? An eclectic bunch of people they’ve interviewed give their perspectives on endings. “I try to minimise them,” says one, “because of the amount of pain.” Through surreal, physical and musical routines, Mary and El explore how finishing things – particularly relationships – can be scary and also a death of sorts. Why does El no longer “explode” in a scene that breaks down mid-way? Why can’t everything stay the same? Endings can be exposing, in the same way nakedness can be, and they can also be fun. They can be a choice, or they can be forced upon us. “Marriage can be the start of a rotten ending,” a woman at one point says, perfectly summing up the interconnecting relationship between starts and finishes that creates such an intriguing and emotional dichotomy. Finally, the metaphorical and, by this point, also literal strings that tie the audience and the show together are cut – a bit like the way that the ones that connect me, the reviewer, and you, the reader, are about to be. The end.

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