Fringe Theatre Reviews: The Northern Stage

Feature by Charlie Hanks | 13 Aug 2015

There is deep concern for place and for home across this year’s Northern Stage programme; the perspective is global, multicultural, imagined.

Key Change [★★★★☆], the standout production, is devised by inmates of a women’s prison, giving them an uninterrupted voice to tell their stories. The humility with which Open Clasp Theatre Company and writer Catrina McHugh approached the project is evident and allows the five actors to thrive on the script’s wit and honesty, hilarious and savage by turns, but always refreshing. The women try to build a home for themselves and with one another while dreaming of better on the outside and the performances convey this paradox with awareness and masterful fun.

Also dreaming up a better world are the characters in Third Angel’s The Paradise Project [★★★★☆], an abstract two-hander that is initially difficult to warm to, with a futuristic, clinical set and an unidentifiable relationship between the pair. Gradually, as we realise their purpose in creating paradise from scratch, the carefully witty and satirical script and the actors’ lovely improv-feel delivery become quite addictive, and quite illuminating, as they tie themselves in knots of preconceptions. The passing of time is indicated with humour and structural ingenuity by a series of snapshot scenes between blackouts; by the time the female character, always the more optimistic, concedes that 'There’s always tomorrow' to try again, it feels tempting to join them.

Here is the News From Over There [★★☆☆☆] explicitly encourages the audience to return, with a different line-up every night, but offers little reason to come back. The concept, bringing different voices from Egypt and across the Middle East through short plays, is exciting. The performers will likely sharpen their delivery but for now it feels thrown together and a little complacent, barely carrying even a friendly preview audience into the final singalong.

Cinema [★★☆☆☆] also brings a Middle Eastern voice, that of a survivor of a 1978 terrorist arson attack on an Iranian cinema. To make this story personal rather than political is clearly the goal but it falls short, and despite some clever narrative devices, it remains unclear why that survivor-narrator is in fact a cat. Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambaksh’s characterisation is more childlike than feline; Nicole Vivien-Watson’s BSL interpreting, sometimes woven into the action, is an engaging but further diluting feature.

Daniel Bye is certainly an engaging narrator in Going Viral [★★★☆☆]. This is a supremely welcoming theatrical environment; the audience is in a square, with Bye frequently sitting among them to deliver his ‘performance lecture’, asking how everyone is, relaxed with improvised interaction. This is a show about how we interact and Bye makes the audience aware of one another, neatly giving each member a personal cast of characters to fill his story. The story itself is a little forced, and it is never exactly clear what allegory is intended by the 'weeping virus' passed on by offering comfort. It feels dystopic, as do the test-tube lights and searing sound, but this is inconsistent with Bye’s delivery which is infectiously hopeful.

Five Feet in Front (The Ballad of Little Johnnie Wylo) [★★★☆☆] is also a story of hope. This is thick with parody though and the cast themselves hardly seem convinced by the fabulous narrative. There is nothing reticent about the storming live music these six provide, nor the vibrant tap routines between Johnnie and his rival/accomplice, the wind, but there is something hollow and incongruous – especially in the language – that lets this hoedown show down.

There is nothing hollow about the language of the brilliant My Name Is… [★★★★☆], a verbatim play vividly constructed by Sudha Bhuchar and elegantly directed by Philip Osment. The story – of tensions in a mixed-race marriage and unfortunate media attention – is presented with extraordinary balance and insight, and the three actors handle the brave overlapping deliveries and subtleties of character with relish. The boundaries of home and foreignness are trodden with careful selections of language and emotions, depicting the warmth and personalities – ignored by the media – of each character .

It is here, as in Key Change, that the Northern Stage programme excels, offering unprejudiced understanding of the reality of people and place with dramaturgical sensitivity, and honest and bright performances. There is diversity here, and beauty.

Northern Stage until 30 Aug, Summerhall:
Cinema, £10/£8, 10.45am
Key Change, £12/£10, 12.30pm
Going Viral, £12/£10, 2.10pm
The Paradise Project, £12/£10, 5.40pm
My Name Is..., £14/£11, 7.25pm
Five Feet In Front (The Ballad of Little Johnnie Wylo), £10/£8, 9.25pm
Here is the News From Over There, £12/£10, 11.10pm

Northern Stage until 30 Aug, Summerhall: Cinema, £10/£8, 10.45am Key Change, £12/£10, 12.30pm Going Viral, £12/£10, 2.10pm The Paradise Project, £12/£10, 5.40pm My Name Is..., £14/£11, 7.25pm Five Feet In Front (The Ballad of Little Johnnie Wylo), £10/£8, 9.25pm Here is the News From Over There, £12/£10, 11.10pm