Fringe Theatre Reviews: Verbatim Theatre

Boxed In, Run, Open and ménage: we cast our eagle eyes over a selection of verbatim theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe

Feature by Charlie Hanks and Emma Ainley-Walker | 21 Aug 2015

There can be nothing more powerful, political or worthwhile in theatre than perfectly constructed verbatim. To turn interviews, the gathering of which is lengthy and artful work itself, into a piece that is engaging, informative and well-structured is a giant task.

It is taken on ably and boldly by the cast of Open [★★★☆☆], a broad insight into British – or at least English – political attitudes prior to this year’s election. The play opens with a confident series of vox-pop style entrances from each of the five cast members, punctuated by angry verses (presumably not taken from interviews) which set an erroneously partisan tone; their lack of return is welcome but it does highlight the play’s inconsistencies. Overall, if this young company leans towards an anti-government bias, there is vital balance here and it is neatly structured around conversations in a chip shop to keep momentum. The interactions in the shop could be more varied, and whether we are presented with a genuine snapshot of society, as appears to be the ambitious aim, is doubtful. There are no startlingly revealing voices, as verbatim theatre really demands. But after all, this is a vast subject on which a great deal has already been said, and this production is a truly refreshing and humble account from the promising Nottingham New Theatre.

Slicker, more ballsy, but perhaps less faithful to its sources is Boxed In [★★★★☆], a sharp comment on gender roles and expectations. Eva Hibbs’ supple and witty script is ‘inspired’ by interviews with males and females aged 5-70, but we are presented with 25-year-old twins Jess and James, played with hilarious fraternal understanding by Lily Beck and Rose Wardle. That the gender of Wardle’s character remains unclear for some time is clearly intentional, but somehow it feels a missed opportunity when it is disclosed. There is some lovely additional characterisation, notably in the pair’s reconstruction of visiting Grandma; the scene is also one of many to demonstrate the actors’ accomplished physicality. Again, the play’s subject is one we all think we know. There is nothing revolutionary about Portmanteau’s production but it is still pertinent and important, and the personalisation and distillation of the interview material is deft, effective and thought-provoking.

Also being respectfully liberal with their inspiration are Engineer Theatre Collective in RUN [★★★★☆]. The writing here is terrific, depicting four interns at a city bank, irreconcilably different but, ultimately, equally likeable. The cast is excellent, their pacing expert and consistently funny, particularly Al Jarrett as the shallow but breakable Lawrence. Much of the play is clearly imagined, but there is a subtlety to the characters and vicious reality to the plot that confirms its grounding in true accounts, emphasised by an impressively nerve-troubling movement sequence to real news items. At times, the play seems to be attempting to humanise the financial sector but the disembodied voice of Phil, the interns’ superior, suggests it is more openly cynical. Its themes go beyond the bank and it is insightful theatre.

The Ryan Good-penned ménage [★★★☆☆] takes its true-to-life nature beyond just the text, with the performance taking place in a private residence. An audience of two must follow instructions that request you 'be discreet' before arrival. The play deals with sex work and the growing dangers faced by workers who are less and less suported by the system. One performer (changing between shows) melds together several stories, taken from interview, into one character. Small touches really bring you into the world, such as changing of bed sheets and an incredible natural delivery, difficult in such close quarters. Sadly, more performative moments, such as a scene utilising mirrors, jar from the rest of the production and deflect from the importance of the words.

Open, ZOO, 20,22,24,26,28 Aug, 11:00am, £8 (£6)

Boxed In, Pleasance Courtyard, 'til 31 Aug (not 20), 2:15pm, £11/£10 (£9/£8)

RUN, Pleasance Courtyard, 'til 31 Aug, 1:15pm, £10.50/£9.50/£8.50

ménage, Underbelly George Square, 'til 30 Aug, every 40 mins 3:00pm-5:40pm, £14