Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Catalpa Theatre Workshop

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The Independent Culture
In an unexceptional festival that has seen the Fringe swollen with promising new comedy but largely failed to uncover a theatrical hit, Donal O'Kelly's Catalpa is one of the few shows that has been steadily building word-of-mouth success. Popular and critical momentum culminated this week in full houses, rave reviews from the Herald and a Fringe First award. A passionate one-man performance that runs for over two hours, Catalpa has been dubbed a "tour de force".

Conceived and performed by Kelly, the play describes the rescue of six Irish prisoners from a penal colony in Australia by Captain George Anthony and the whaler, Catalpa. This epic narrative is framed by a theatrical conceit that plants the action in the mind of rejected screen-writer Matthew Kidd. Spurned by Hollywood, a pyjama-clad Kidd plays out "the greatest movie never made" in his bedroom.

With Kelly playing Anthony, his wife, their baby, the crew of the Catalpa and every bit part going (including cobblestones and seagulls) Catalpa feels at times like one long audition; Kidd's folie de grandeur matched by Kelly's determination to showcase his staggering versatility, which he proves beyond doubt. It is the play itself, despite it's huge ambitions, that falls short.

Setting the scene in 19th-century America, Kelly labours hard at detail and atmosphere, segueing seamlessly from script to direction: "pan", "cut", "close up of wooden spokes on gravel". There is then a certain verisimilitude: watching Catalpa is exactly like ingesting a screenplay, but reading a play comes a poor second to seeing it staged, and having a play read to you is the theatrical equivalent of Book at Bedtime, an untaxing, soporific experience.

That is not to say that Kelly's performance is static. His intense delivery and vocal dexterity make good use of limited props, filling the most basic of sets with a strong physical presence. But with every morsel of the production explicitly pinned down by Kidd's creative ego, there is little space for ambiguity or interpretation. Paradoxically, given this lengthy and precise exposition, one learns little about Fenian politics or whaling. Instead, everything is seen through a mythic gauze.

There's a feyness to the writing that taps into Irish storytelling and occasionally transforms Anthony's mission into the sentimental journey it is clearly meant to be. Elsewhere, however, it echoes the worst cliches of Hollywood. Women have authentically two-dimensional parts and a toe-curling sex scene finds Kelly writhing on his bed talking of hump-backed whales and salty sea caves.

Catalpa is not without charm, and Trevor Knight's original score wraps Kelly's monologues with haunting keyboard music but, for all that, its lyricism is never quite engaging. To borrow a marine metaphor from Kelly, Catalpa is the Moby Dick of the Fringe.

n Theatre Workshop (Venue 20) to 31 Aug. (0131-226 5425)