Edinburgh Fringe 2019 review round-up: Smaller venues take centre stage with three brilliant shows, including The Nights by Henry Naylor

E8, The Nights and The Wild Unfeeling World were all thoroughly enjoyed by our critic

Dave Pollock
Wednesday 21 August 2019 14:45
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Caitlin Thorburn stars in The Nights as Carter, a crusading journalist and fictional acquaintance of James Foley, the journalist murdered by ISIS
Caitlin Thorburn stars in The Nights as Carter, a crusading journalist and fictional acquaintance of James Foley, the journalist murdered by ISIS

E8 ★★★★☆ / The Nights ★★★★☆ / The Wild Unfeeling World ★★★★☆

Today our Edinburgh Festival Fringe round-up has no theme binding the shows involved together, save for the fact we’ve seen and thoroughly enjoyed them all on our travels, and none of them are being presented at any of the recognised powerhouses of new theatre in Edinburgh during August – namely, the Traverse, Summerhall or the Edinburgh International Festival.

Better known as the University of Edinburgh’s Potterrow student union throughout the rest of the year, the Pleasance Dome is a dependable enough haunt during August for comedy and all manner of quirky plays of varying quality. However, with E8 – a presentation of Oxford’s North Wall Arts Centre in association with the Pleasance – the venue has hit upon a real winner, which will definitely enjoy a life beyond these walls. Created by writer and spoken word artist Marika Mckennell, it relays her own experience working in alternative provision schools or pupil referral units; the places where children who don’t fit into the regular education system end up.

E8 relays writer Marika Mckennell's own experience of working in pupil referral units (Sophia Burnell)

Directed by Ria Parry with a feel for the script’s perfect balance of wit, empathy and tension, it tells of teachers Polly (Tina Chiang) and Mo (Parys Jordon) – the former an eager-to-help middle class woman who is about to leave to study her PhD, the latter a man who grew up “in the ‘hood” and is blessed with more empathy than sympathy – and the Friday afternoon they spend looking after their charges.

Ryan (Harry McMullen) is unable to concentrate for long or express himself, while Bailey (Alice Vilanculo) has a violent temper, but hopes to find a better life away from her aunt’s home with a fostering referral. Showing a slice of life rather than a route to easy solutions, the play gives a rich and unflinching sense of these kids’ realities.

Across Bristo Square at Teviot, another converted student union, is a play by one of the few playwrights at the Fringe who can sell extra tickets on the back of his name being in the title. A former television comedy writer and one half of the Parsons & Naylor topical double act, Henry Naylor makes a verifiable habit of returning every year with a new political play which tends to follow a similar template; there is always a woman in the lead role and a connection to conflict in the Middle East.

The Nights is not such a vintage play by Naylor’s standards, but a thoroughly recommended one by most others’. Inspired by the case of “Isis bride” Shamima Begum, this two-hander stars Caitlin Thorburn as Carter, a crusading journalist and fictional acquaintance of the murdered journalist James Foley. In her haste to secure a quote from a former soldier who will speak out against Begum, however, she turns to military memorabilia shop owner Kane (Naylor himself), a man with his own deeply troubling relationship with violence against captives. As ever in a Naylor play, the real meat is in the masterfully spun sense of moral ambiguity.

In an entirely different tone from both of the above is Casey Jay Andrews’ deeply charming The Wild Unfeeling World, a quirky solo update on Moby Dick in which a young woman who has lost her home, job and car sets out on foot across London, pursued by a cat named Ahab who bears a mortal grudge against her. It’s an incredibly cutesy piece, but the intimacy and power of Andrews’ storytelling – for a tiny audience lining the edge of a bespoke, shed-like structure in the Pleasance’s garden – elevates the experience.

E8 is at Pleasance Dome until Sunday 25 August

The Nights by Henry Naylor is at Gilded Balloon Teviot until Monday 26 August

The Wild Unfeeling World is at Pleasance Courtyard until Sunday 25 August (odd days only)

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