Fringe Theatre: Northern Stage @ Summerhall

We look at the Northern Stage theatre programme at Summerhall at this year's Edinburgh Fringe

Feature by Kate Pasola | 05 Aug 2016

Northern Stage’s programme preview begins at 11am with a chirpy, lycra-clad Hannah Nicklin, taking sips from an ergonomic water bottle as she readies herself to begin Equations For A Moving Body (★★★★☆), an 80-minute monologue about fitness, friendship and the spiritual experience of participating in a high-endurance triathlon.

It’s a bold programming decision – at this time of day the theatre’s packed with bleary-eyed coffee clutchers – but the effervescent Nicklin wins us over. The topic is refreshing and our protagonist is articulate, witty and in possession of anecdotes worth getting out of bed for.

The play quickly falls into that familiar Fringe format of TED Talk-meets-passionate confessional, but cliché is cannily subverted as Nicklin trades in Powerpoint slides for a live projection of her laptop. As she flits from tab to tab, tweet to YouTube video, fitness app to Google map we vicariously train, compete, befriend, fall in love, fall out of love, mourn and learn what it means to set goals beyond marriages and mortgages.

It’s a shame Hannah doesn’t linger a little longer on the glimmering moments of humanity and loveliness in her play. Pushed for time, she sacrifices this development in order to give detailed tours of fitness websites and explanations of training routes. It’s intriguing, but at times overwhelming. That said, her comprehensive approach won’t be wasted on the cult following of sporty so-and-sos that this show is likely to win. 

Next, the stage is transformed with a patchwork backdrop of protest banners for Lung Theatre’s E15 (★★★★☆). The play’s a verbatim piece about Britain’s housing crisis, in which an ensemble of four women and one man document the collective action of Focus E15, a group of young homeless mothers who’ve been repeatedly displaced due to cuts, privatisation and gentrification.

As we follow the group through rallies, meetings, occupations and tragedies, it becomes apparent we’re not getting out of this auditorium without confronting our ignorance. We’re aggressively told about loopholes and taxes and conspiracies and cuts – sometimes to the detriment of the show’s pace – but these are lessons worth teaching. We’re invited to mock council representatives, CEOs and then-mayor of London Boris Johnson, and after a clever twist that momentarily obliterates the fourth wall, the audience is fully invested.

At times, the actors seem to struggle with the dozens of stories and opinions they’ve chosen to vocalise – one or two wavering commitments to accent and characterisation distract from what is otherwise a slick and absorbing storyline. However, when the cast are able to settle into their central narrative and characters, their performances are commendable, and at times magnificent. As a piece of theatre, this has potential; as a call-to-arms, it’s victorious.

People of the Eye (★★☆☆☆) aims for something similarly stirring, with an energetic examination of the impact of deafness upon individuals and their families. Unfortunately that aim isn’t met. What could have been an imperative piece of theatre doing justice to the oft-neglected stories of the aurally impaired is simultaneously underdeveloped and overblown, with an uninspiring narrative and hammy performances.

The show has its strengths; it’s accessible for those with hearing issues thanks to creative use of sign language and engagingly displayed subtitles. In an interesting social inversion, those paying attention to these features are even occasionally afforded the upper hand through in-jokes and subtleties missing from the verbal interactions.

One or two sequences show promise, in particular a visual metaphor which illustrates the troubling complexities at play when family members play the role of interpreter, but these moments of cleverly realised insight aren’t frequent enough to warrant a recommendation.

The day is brought to a rousing (albeit slightly silly) conclusion with Putting The Band Back Together (★★★☆☆), a spirited piece of gig theatre led by Ross Millard of The Futureheads, Maria Crocker of The Letter Room and Northern Stage’s Alex Elliott. The musicians embark on a ten-track playlist of songs connected by the tale of a terminally ill character played by Elliott who, after making it to an Elbow gig against all odds, decides to rekindle his relationship with music and, quite literally put the band back together.

The set is gorgeous, with stacks of amps and glowing lanterns framed by border of flashing bulbs. This warmth seeps into the plot and mingles with the show’s soundtrack of rocky ballads, tender strums and the odd comedy track. The music’s mostly enjoyable, especially when Millard’s sonic influence can be heard purring within, but it’s frustrating to see the piece undermined by clumsy jokes and clownish physical theatre.

Still, this recklessly romantic play seems to have priorities beyond achieving critical acclaim. From the moment the show’s ‘house band’ (made up of a diverse group of amateur musicians) is first called to the stage, it becomes clear that the social context and legacy of this play is worth considering. The show is an elegy to a lost friend, an appreciation of community spirit and an example of the North East’s refusal to let brutal government cuts isolate and disengage local musicians and actors.

Putting The Band Back Together is far from perfect, but it is perfect proof of its own core sentiment: sometimes you don’t have to be brilliant, you just have to be there.

Equations for a Moving Body, Summerhall, until 27 Aug (not 10, 17 & 24), 11am, £11 (£9)
E15, Summerhall, until 27 Aug (not 10, 17 & 24), 6.30pm, £11 (£9)
People of the Eye, Summerhall, until 27 Aug (not 10, 17 & 24), 1pm, £11 (£9)
Putting the Band Back Together, Summerhall, until 27 Aug (not 10, 17 & 24), £12 (£10)