The Festival Critics: FRINGE / One man, one body and a soul unmasked

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The Independent Culture
HALFWAY through the week the temptation to organise a fringe version of Happy Families was overwhelming: bringing together the head of one show, the body of a second and the legs of a third. So often it's either-or. Either performance skills or coherent narratives. Either psychological insight or offbeat humour. Couldn't these groups shuffle the cards and get together? But there was one performance that had it all. It was a small irony that the double-bill Say A Prayer for Me and Hell was not listed in the Fringe programme. Also its eight performances take place at four different venues. Never mind. Long live last-minute plans.

George Dillon performs two stories by Steven Berkoff - the second of them unpublished - on the subject of loneliness. The first unmasks the creeping fears and failures of Harry, a mediocre actor, before and after he has sex with Doris, a plain girl at his hostel. Dillon switches with electric intensity between Berkoff's grotesque voices, savage irony and unexpected tenderness. One minute Dillon shrivels up into a snarling, flailing embodiment of failure, the next minute he preens himself with a memory of a review in a local paper. This is a rapid, biting, fifth-gear performance.

Hell is more surprising. Dillon sits way upstage, in a red spotlight, virtually naked, and describes the crushing loneliness that engulfs him after a love affair. Dillon barely looks at the audience. He changes position a couple of times and inhales on a mimed cigarette. Harold Budd's plangent music and Dillon's amplified voice create a portentous atmosphere - one that could so easily slip into self pity - but Dillon controls this narrative with compelling assurance.

The old standbys of piano, violin, funny hats and tailcoats that dominate a group like Les Macloma, a bizarre trio of French clowns, suggest their material might have been devised any time this century. By contrast the Israeli physical comedian Hanoch Rosenn aims for an audience raised on MTV. In Breaking the Sound Barrier he mixes videotapes, soundtracks and montage with mime, dance, cheeky jokes and a chatshow grin. His lithe figure first bounds on as an ape picking fruit. In a rapid ascent of man, he discovers fire, classical music and then traffic jams. As the horns honk and drivers curse Rosenn wittily metamorphoses back to the ape. When he discovers the fire he warms his behind. Subsequent sketches display some breathtaking physical techniques. One dance involves hundreds of individual movements strung together at a speed like a character in a Super 8 movie. But the material is far too anodyne for this inventive performer. In the best sketch he uses only hands and arms to tell the story of two flowers falling in love. The stages in the relationship are unmistakable. When a storm kills off the female flower her hand clasps the other forearm, then slips away, leaving the fingers on the remaining hand to tremble in grief.

David Ian Neville's play Exile is a sorrowful account of lives that are wrecked by a bomb. The victims in these three bleak monologues escaped the immediate blast. They are the wife and father of a maimed British soldier and the girlfriend of the terrorist. The soldier never appears. We see the wheelchair where he normally sits, watching quiz shows on TV. The wife (Jane Reilly) clutches her wedding dress and re-reads her husband's letters. The father (Finlay McLean) tries to cope with the desolate housework. As Remembrance Sunday approaches he wants only to forget. The terrorist's girlfriend (Corinne Harris) fights back tears in a safe house, where she is kept after informing on her boyfriend, a so-called ballistics engineer who made bombs in the flat while she provided tea and toast. Neville, who also directs, draws strongly sympathetic performances from these three Scottish actors. But drama also mediates grief and this highly plausible script is unremitting.

In John McGrath's 42nd play Watching for Dolphins, Elizabeth MacLennan plays ex-teacher Reynalda Ripley who runs a B & B in Wales. As she prepares Welsh lamb and empire cake she does a little ironing and plays the piano. None of these activities carry much conviction compared with the account of her political life: Young Communists, Oxford, Paris in '68, women's groups in the Seventies and despair under Thatcher in the Eighties. Socialism is a dirty word and Reynalda now does meals at pounds 8.50 a head for people she once thought of blowing up. This passionate, revealing, one-sided argument about a crisis of faith was presented, not inappropriately, in a lecture-theatre.

For venues and details see Hourly Planner below.

(Photograph omitted)

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