Edinburgh Festival: Fringe Theatre: Putting on a brave Front

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Di Titswell is a woman on the verge of nothing much in particular. A 33-year-old teacher in a north London comprehensive, whose vaguely suggestive surname inspires proud professionalism in the face of, er, tittering kids, she talks shop with the zealous concern for detail which is the preserve of those - hairdressers, double-glazing salesmen, taxi drivers - who spend much of their working lives trying to hold the attention of reluctant listeners. The poignant effect of Swan Song, at the Pleasance, derives from its gently parodic character study - Di sports a sensible, chalk- repellent, two-piece cotton ensemble; she reiterates a patronising insistence on the values of empathetic listening and "hugging"; and smiles fondly at her "mad" contributions to abysmal staff-room repartee. Rebecca Front's fleshing-out of a woman with "no spare alcove in her through-lounge of life" for a man, makes you at once empathise with Di's unacknowledged loneliness, but adamantly feel that it should be someone else who takes the time to rectify it.

At Southside, another female monologue - Undine, written and perfomed by 22-year-old advertising account planner Kara Miller - is the harrowing tale of a Barbadian mail-order bride, flown over to Romford, and forced to remain in her "husband's" bedsit all day looking after his baby from a relationship with a 14-year-old girl. Miller's performance, ranging from resentful serf, to nostalgic, wide-eyed dancer, to an (unrealised) powerful, sexual woman is remarkable. The unflinching honesty and brutal beauty of the writing, and the spell-binding power of the confessional performance, would make even Di Titswell realise that an empathetic "hug" is sometimes a thoroughly inappropriate gesture.

Whoever it was that penned the lines "Suicide is painless", and "I can take or leave it if I please" would have been the best person to advise Semyon Semoyonovich Podsekalnikov on his predicament. Instead, the hapless, unemployed Muscovite gets a succession of suitors - from the intelligentsia, the arts, the masses, and business - vying for his unequivocal commitment, in death, to their cause, in return for (posthumous) heroic recognition. The ever-dependable and inventive Communicado Theatre Company, at the Traverse, gleefully romp through Nikolai Erdman's The Suicide, a satirical farce championed by Meyerhold and Stanislavsky in the 1930s, but only premiered in the Soviet Union in 1982. Conleth Hill shines among the ensemble as Semyon, at once pathetically indecisive and fearfully astute as the moment of his pre-arranged sacrifice draws near.

For real diverting entertainment, a short walk round the Botanic Gardens at sundown can transport you to Malawi, via London and Egypt, and bring you back to base with the floodlit Edinburgh skyline as a final backdrop. With the unifying structure of an educational promenade, Theatrum Botanicum's Preacherman - Livingstone's Quest for the Source of the Nile can't be beaten for special effects-free magic - African drumming and dancing, masks, mime and an ironic revision of the contribution of British explorers and missionaries to the "dark continent" - on an epic scale. After coming full circle narratively and botanically, Livingstone's life is summed up: "There was once a man who went for a walk and when he started he could not stop." And it took a concerted effort by the troupe to walk the audience out the gates at the end.

'Swan Song': Pleasance (0131 556 6550), to 24 Aug; 'Undine': Southside (0131 667 2212), to 30 Aug; 'The Suicide': Traverse (0131 228 1404), to 30 Aug; 'Preacherman': Royal Botanic Gardens, to 24 Aug.

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