Star rating: The Marked ****
Venue: Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)
One Day Moko ***
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14)
Spotlites (Venue 278)
The Rooster Rebellion **
theSpace on Niddry St (Venue 9)
Doubting Thomas ****
Summerhall (Venue 26)
One presence that’s hard to miss on the streets of Edinburgh this summer are the homeless. Their numbers are increasing: one estimate says homelessness in the UK is up 55 per cent since 2010. Blame austerity, recession or a Tory government, the safety net is being ripped apart and more people are falling through it.
Perhaps this is the reason why several theatre-makers are tackling homelessness and stories from the margins on the Fringe this year. There is dramatic potential in being one crisis away from catastrophe, but what does it mean to be in a predominantly middle-class audience, watching middle-class theatre-makers putting on a show about people who could never afford to see it? Are we being voyeurs, assuming that this won’t happen to us?
Theatre Temoin have researched The Marked by working with homeless charities in London, and presented the show in ten homeless hostels prior to coming to Edinburgh. Using their signature technique of combining acting with masks and puppetry, they follow Jack, a young rough-sleeper, pregnant Sophie and her belligerent boyfriend Pete as their lives brush against one another in the savage world they are forced to inhabit.
The near-wordless style means the plot has to avoid too much complexity, but the production’s strength is in the powerful visual world it creates. Masks and puppets create layers of symbolism to show us Jack’s back story and internal landscape. Ironically, the resolution (if such is possible for Jack) comes in a stripping away of the symbolism, and an acceptance of his own humanity and the fallible humanity of others.
One Day Moko, by New Zealand’s Portable Union, takes a contrasting approach, although it too was inspired by encounters with people living on the streets. Tim Carlsen’s Moko is an “urban cowboy”, a charmer, working the crowd, painfully eager to sing our requests (he has a very fine voice) even when, in some cases, he clearly doesn’t know the song.
It’s an episodic and fractured tale, a day in the life which takes him from McDonalds to the drop-in centre, and offers brief snapshots into other city lives. Carlsen delivers a powerful performance, particularly in the moments when Moko’s crowd-pleasing mask falls away and he is subsumed by rage or despair, hinting at the kind of deep-seated, complex problems common among the long-term homeless.
The strength of the show is in the character and the performance, yet Moko wastes valuable time on lengthy stretches of audience participation, and in telling stories other than his own, without explaining his relationship to them. And shifting the locus of the work to Edinburgh feels like a mistake, the place-name references don’t quite ring true – if he was in Auckland, we’d still recognise the characters.
The story of a young homeless woman in Edinburgh forms the spine of Ashley McLean’s sensitively observed play, Unseen. Holly (McLean) has a job as a hotel receptionist, but when her hours are cut, she can no longer afford her rent and, after running out of favours to call on, ends up on the streets. Here she meets Maria (Lara Fabiani), well-meaning and desperate to help. The two had met once before at a recruitment day, but is it possible to forge a friendship when their circumstances are so different?
While the play needs more pace, more of a narrative arc, it is perceptive on the subject of homelessness: the slow downward spiral in which despair turns to acceptance, and the increasing weight of a person’s circumstances makes him or her less and less able to change; the longing to be seen, acknowledged, yet the pain which this brings, as the realities of life are brought into sharp contrast with others.
The Rooster Rebellion, by American writer and director Anthony L Moriani, is more ambitious, but also more deeply flawed. Teenager Reece-Anne goes on a school trip to a gallery in London and is shocked to find her favourite history teacher, Shelby Moore, begging outside. Determined to help, Reece-Anne walks out on her ultra-conservative religious mother and joins Shell, living in a disused Tube station.
There are some very able performances, notably from Jon McKenna as Shell and Richard Oliver as the homeless Norris, an Iraq veteran and opportunist beggar. But the plot fails to convince, and the theme of choice which is set up in the early scenes seems to get lost along the way.
Ground-breaking director Jeremy Weller is still talked about on the Fringe in hallowed tones as the maker of shows such as Glad and Mad under the banner of The Grassmarket Project in the 1990s. The company, now reconstituted as Grassmarket Projects, works on similar principles, providing a context for “real people” to tell their stories in theatre.
Its second show, Doubting Thomas, has a cast of eight ex-offenders, led by Thomas McCrudden, a former gangland enforcer who has done time for violent crimes. He is determined to go straight, but he has a few tough questions for these “arty-farty f*****s” (Weller’s team) who want to tell his story on stage, and for us as an audience, consumers of violence as entertainment, who are rather too quick to label him and his ilk as monsters.
He describes himself as a “lost boy” who becomes trapped in a cycle of serial offending, but he isn’t making excuses: bad choices, limited opportunities, internal drives and the pressures of a violent masculine culture all play a part.
McCrudden’s strong performance, in an ensemble of strong performances, is worthy of many professional theatre companies, and many professional theatre companies could stage this work. Neither is McCrudden simply “being himself”, he is using the skills of theatre to reflect on his story and retell it. But, nevertheless, it stands apart. The rawness and authenticity of his story brings a power all its own.
The Marked until 29 August; today 1:30pm. One Day Moko until 29 August; today 3:45pm. Unseen until 28 August; today 7.35pm. The Rooster Rebellion until 20 August; today 9:05pm. Doubting Thomas until 28 August; today 7:20pm.