Standby for Tape Back-Up, Summerhall, review: 'Brilliantly pulled off'

Edinburgh Festival 2014: Sutherland goes wide with his themes and stories

We all see patterns in the world that we know to be completely random, suggests performance poet Ross Sutherland - like when you break up with someone and every song on the radio is a direct reference to them.

He finds such synchronicity comforting however, and presents an old VHS, recorded and re-recorded over by him and grandfather when he was a little boy. This tape is his life, he tells us, and throughout this show is preoccupied with how our identity is mapped through the culture we collect around us, how we even channel our hopes and fears through TV and film.

Sutherland feels sure this tape holds the key to his search for some “deeper meaning”, prompted by the death of his grandfather, if only he can fathom out the connections.

A VHS player and TV sit onstage, its crackly image projected large on the wall.  An oppressively atmospheric soundtrack plays, at times leading Sutherland’s chatty musings into slick spoken word, nearly rap rhythms.

Eighties TV and film classics - Ghostbusters, The Crystal Maze, the Thriller music video - are played from the tape and frantically looped, their repetition and Sutherland’s densely layered text giving an almost hallucinatory sensory and information overload, as we to tunnel further and further into what they might mean. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s title sequence suddenly can seem like a profound meditation on death and the afterlife - which sounds utterly absurd, but is in fact audaciously, brilliantly pulled off.

Occasionally it’s too much to take in - Sutherland goes wide with his themes and stories, his mental leaps and associative webs, and some sections spin from dizzyingly clever into slightly scrambled. Standby for Tape Back-Up is at it’s most moving - for this is not pure post-modern, everything’s-a-reference trickery - when what he screens and what he says most closely illuminate his relationship with his grandad, and truly grapple with that very human sense of loss.

To 23 Aug;