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Edinburgh Fringe Theatre
Sunday Times (August 2001)

In six days of searching for truth and beauty on the fringes of the fringe, the average reviewer will have encountered the following. Three actors stripped to their underwear. Four knife attacks. Two depictions of sodomy. Nine breasts (don’t ask). Three tapdancing Russian cyber punks. A handful of outlandish wigs. And three naked girls in three barrels. Surrounded by five Vikings blowing on five suspiciously long horns.

Rather less common is the freeze frame of genuine pain that lingers in Michael Philip Edwards’ eyes after he relives being forced to choose between his mother and father at the age of five. Jamaican/ American Edwards’ one man play, “runt”, is billed as a tribute to the Jamaican spirit, but in truth it’s an intensely personal exorcism of the influence of his father.

Eddie Edwards (no relation to “The Eagle”, one presumes) is shown, via a series of skilfully played one sided conversations, to be an amalgam of pride and anger, insecurity and indignation. Michael is a runt in comparison, hamstrung by fear and guilt, forever haunted by the fact that “I chose against my father”. In less accomplished hands, “runt” would run the risk of being overbearing and self-indulgent, but Edwards has enough grace and good humour to take you with him as he confronts his cycle of fear. And were awards given to those who sweated the most during episodes of heartache and passion, Edwards would have a bucketful.

“Jesus Hopped The A Train” is equally as powerful. An off Broadway show making its fringe debut, the production follows two inmates at Riker’s Island prison as they struggle with faith, remorse and the loss of their humanity. Lucius Jenkins is a highly intelligent, utterly unhinged serial killer who’s found God in the babbling tongues of his insanity. Angel Cruz is a rough cut Puerto Rican who shot dead a religious cult leader who brainwashed his best friend. Both grasp for redemption, trying to excuse their crimes with religion or personal conviction, but are broken slowly by despair and the realisation of what they really are.

Compelling from the outset, “Jesus Hopped The A Train” blends the slow burning potency of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” with the gritty edginess of “The Sopranos”. The dialogue crackles with electricity, moving at a sharp, exciting pace with poetry in its slipstream, and the performances are raw, affecting and believable. A rant about Jesus that ends with God slapping his son “upside the head” and sending “your sister to do the job properly” is rewarded with a round of applause, as if the audience are cheering on a jazz virtuoso. Even the bleak conclusion that we are “crying in the darkness, waiting for the lightning” manages to feel invigorating somehow, a drop of inspiration.

Completing a strong early showing for American drama is “A&R”, which won the Sunday Times Playwriting Competition earlier this year. Centred around Damien, a heartless talent scout who fell out of love with rock’n’roll the moment he discovered authority, the plot tackles the Faustian pact that lies at the heart of every stab for fame. Damien picks up hopeful rock star Ricky Roe on a whim, without even a cursory listen of his demo tape, and proceeds to play mind games with him. He gets Ricky to change the way he thinks, writes music and, ultimately, treats his girlfriend. Not because Damien believes Ricky will be a star. Just because he loves the feeling of power.

Well written and directed with pace and precision, “A&R” deals intuitively with the insecurity and paranoia that can accompany every moment of ambition. Andy Crawford’s Ricky has a naive enthusiasm that’s instantly credible while Kate Richards’ Anna veers between being suspicious and supportive with an endearing subtlety. It’s Chris Perkins’ Damien that dominates, however, and as anyone who’s worked in the music industry will confirm, his character is frighteningly real. Every time Damien laughs cynically at the “sound of your adolescence dying” or sneers at the dumb consumers that pay his wages, he’s only repeating what genuine A&R men have been saying for years. Worth seeing for the truth, at the very least.

“Cellophane Singular” doesn’t offer much in the way of meaning but has plenty of silent majesty. Performed by the Japanese mime company Mizuto-Abura, who were nominated for a Total Theatre award at last year’s festival, it traces a man who finds himself in a world of clockwork toys and mischievous bowler-hatted sprites. As he tries to make sense of what’s going on around him, he’s constantly disoriented. Chairs are moved from beneath him, tea cups and plates shift with no warning, and the sprites engage him in all manner of playful conflict and competition.

The true delight of this production is its fluidity and easy good humour. The four strong cast of JunJun, Momokon, Onoderan and Sugapon skip up walls and tumble over and across each other with an elegance of movement that’s supremely engaging. The direction is smooth and artful, with the remnants of one scenario playing themselves out in the background as another begins to exert itself. And the love story segment, where they play out the age old story of boy meets girl, boy gives girl flower, girl eats flower and onwards until it gets very messy indeed, is hilarious. Only the somewhat vague ending lets down an otherwise wonderfully entertaining show.

Closer to the wilfully experimental spirit of the fringe are two of the odder items in the programme this year. “Napthalene” proves that Benny Hill and “TISWAS” made it to Russia after all, with a production that starts with a trio of “Mad Max” extras terrorising the audience and then lurches off into a realm of surreal nonsense. At times it feels like the performers – Baltic lookalikes of Terry Thomas, Phil Collins and Lulu – simply ramraided a costume shop and dreamt up what to do with the outfits in the pub afterwards. But they have enough natural charm and innate hilarity to carry it off.

“Kassandra Now”, meanwhile, sees ten Swedish Vikings recreate pagan song with the help of flaming torches, medieval horns, and lots of baffling nudity. The show is ostensibly a lament for the terrors of war and the massed madrigal voices are undeniably powerful. The decision to deliver the commentary in Swedish, however, cuts the casual observer off from the source of the many howls of pain and anguish, even though the implications are clear. A shame, because as musical review this is haunting and magical in the extreme. Deeper understanding could have only added to the production.

Perhaps they could have taken a hint from “The Spice Trail”, which is without a doubt the feel good hit of the fringe. Set in the Royal Botanic Gardens, it takes the smiling crowd on a relaxed tour around the grounds, on the search for the ingredients of the perfect curry. Dancers from Calcutta provide simple joy with basic moves and ornate costumes, while African performers in animal headdressses and furs bring mischief and wicked humour.

There is a sense that this is little more than pantomime as you meet chirpy versions of King Solomon and Marco Polo and Gandhi, and several ramshackle moments (a boat’s mast falls over, a firebreathing god sets fire to his costume) make sure the atmosphere is far from professional. But with Edinburgh twinkling in the background and your mouth watering as the spices are gathered, dismissing the sweet and simple charm of “The Spice Trail” would be like turning your back on the fringe itself. As King Solomon himself says: “I have witnessed things you would not believe”. And for good or for bad, for amazement or disdain, this is proof that the fringe is stronger than ever.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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