James Rowland: Piece of Work @ Summerhall

In his latest Edinburgh Fringe show, James Rowland explores death, grief, geography and memory

Review by Josephine Balfour-Oatts | 05 Sep 2023
  • James Rowland Piece of Work

Using Shakespeare’s Hamlet to explore father/son relationships, as well as ideas of death, dying, and mental health, James Rowland’s latest show Piece of Work foregrounds the importance of talking about one’s emotions, particularly suicidal ideation. Rowland's personal experiences of grief and the death of his father are considered in detail – as is his relationship with his younger brother, Chris, who struggles with anhedonia (the inability, or reduced ability, to feel pleasure or joy), a condition which is distinct from depression, but that is often symptomatic of depressive disorders.

Over the course of the hour, Rowland returns home to his roots by way of the Bard. He casts a thistle seed into the air. It takes flight, leaping from his hands, before floating down to the floor. This small yet seismic action sets the tone for Piece of Work perfectly, as Rowland also goes on to explore the ways in which our inner lives are shaped by landscape and place.

Maps are spread across the stage. With the geography of his childhood at his feet, Rowland recounts his formative experiences. He goes between Manchester and York; he goes further afield; he seeks the “Proustian rush” of a chicken burger. As he moves from memory to memory – invoking, even provoking, our own in the process – Rowland’s sense of language achieves a similar sensory effect to Proust’s famous “madeleine moment”.

Notable for its intimate, informal style, Rowland’s performance is peppered with asides that are seemingly spontaneous – a testament to his excellent delivery and craftsmanship. Though it shares the innocence of the floating seed, the ending feels too tentative, and demands something more direct: the equivalent of a fuchsia bud popped between the fingers, perhaps. Regardless, Piece of Work is a thoughtful, tender exploration of a very delicate subject matter, and a truly poignant reminder of our humanness, our corporeality.

James Rowland: Piece of Work, Summerhall, Fringe run ended; show touring the UK from 8 Sep, details and tickets at attictheatrecompany.com