Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2019, review: Collapsible, Swim, The Last of the Pelican Daughters

 There's no shortage of candid shows about coping with grief and mental health at this year's festival

Holly Williams
Saturday 10 August 2019 15:37 BST
'Collapsible' at Edinburgh Fringe Festival
'Collapsible' at Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Holly Revell)

Collapsible ★★★☆☆ / Swim ★★★☆☆ / The Last of the Pelican Daughters ★★★★☆

Certain themes always seem to spring out of the fringe, and alongside global ones – fake news and climate change most obviously this year – you’ll also get a run of more personal issues that crop up time and again. Candid shows about coping with grief and mental health have become common in recent years, and there’s no shortage in 2019 either.

Margaret Perry’s Collapsible has a buzz around it, and its star, Breffni Holahan, has already won The Stage’s first EdinburghAward. Quite right too: she gives a terrifically natural, nuanced performance, finding warmth in a show that could have felt just glum. She plays Essie, whose life has fallen apart: she lost her high-flying job, her girlfriend left her. She doesn’t really know who she is anymore.

Essie begins asking people for descriptions of her, hoping to work out how to “sell” herself to potential employers. Friends and family tell her she’s practical, driven, bubbly. That she has her feet on the ground. None of them seem miles away from Holahan’s intelligent, sparky performance – but it’s also glaringly obvious none of them are right either, not least because Essie is perched on a small platform of concrete above the stage, her feet dangling. Beneath her, rubble piles up in Alison Neighbour’s distressed set. When Holahan moves, more of her pedestal crumbles and falls softly.

Thomas Martin’s production only slowly, carefully reveals just how far Essie is from practical, driven or bubbly either. In fact, she’s suffering from a terrible depression; she feels like her body is filled with cold black pebbles. Which makes it hard to ace job interviews. Or get out of bed.

Perry makes Essie a mouthpiece for gleefully acid observations on the bullshit of modern life, from buying over-priced fennel and sea salt candles being rebranded as “self-care” to the horrors of management speak – but what at first seems enjoyably caustic cynicism, might turn out to be something more corrosive.

Essie perfectly embodies of a very modern millennial malaise: simultaneously totally self-absorbed, and anxious that she doesn’t know who her real self is. Collapsible is funny and acute, but the material is also very narrow in its outlook, and feels well-worn. One-woman shows about white middle class women’s mental health struggles abound, and although this is good example, it doesn’t exactly lead anywhere very revelatory.

Sadly the same is true of Swim. Liz Richardson wanted to make a show about wild swimming – the practice of going for a dip outdoors in nature (or just plain “swimming” as surely anyone who grew up in the country calls it). But below the surface, the show is really about grief. Not her own – rather Richardson wanted to make a show for her close friend and swimming partner, who she’d watched going through a terrible loss.

To help her make it, Richardson collaborated with Josie Dale-Jones and Sam Ward, two theatre-makers she didn’t really know, and who had never gone wild swimming before. Swim is a tender, whimsical look at their journey making the show together as well as an exploration of how swimming can help us process pain. There are larky videos where they don wetsuits and gingerly pick their way into a lake, and more earnest reflections on what Richardson gets out of swimming. But Dale-Jones and Ward, despite their best efforts, confess that they never fully get it.

This makes for a lop-sided sort of show, and given neither of them know Richardson’s friend either, they feel a bit like spare parts. Even when the performers are as watchable and likeable as this, listening to people explain why they do or don’t like swimming just isn’t that interesting.

Swim is delicately presented however: there’s gorgeous black and white footage of the Lake District, and the action is elevated by Carmel Smickersgill’s trembling ambient electronic loops and beguiling guitar; a synchronised movement sequence to her gurgling music really manages to convey the joy of swimming rather than looking silly – no mean feat. But for the most part, Swim remains stuck in the shallows.

Diving deep into one family’s drama is Wardrobe Ensemble, a Bristol-based collective who had a hit with Education Education Education. Their new show, The Last of the Pelican Daughters, is supported by legendary experimental company Complicite.

Following the death of their idealistic left-wing hippie mum, the four Pelican sisters – and a couple of boyfriends – return to her home. But what’s strange is how very straight it is for a fringe show by a devising company: unlike their sketch-like previous output, this feels very much in the grand tradition of the family reunion play. You’d guess it was the voice of one person who’s maybe watched a lot of American dramas. It is familiar territory: the loss of a parent, disputed wills, old resentments bubbling to the surface, secrets revealed over boozy dinners and hungover breakfasts…

Edinburgh Fringe show 'Swim' (Chris Payne)
Edinburgh Fringe show 'Swim' (Chris Payne) (Laura Horton)

And yet there’s a freshness and effervescence to the production that lifts it. The sisters, who initially seem like too-neat types – the motherly eldest, the uptight bore, the arty lesbian, the feckless traveller – quickly ring true, and their sisterliness feels squashily lived in. They can be gorgeously generous or utterly destructive in the squeeze of an arm or a flick of an insult. And there’s plenty of zippy sit-com style humour in their clashing aspirations, not to mention clashing boyfriends – including a perfectly insufferable yoga instruction named Dodo.

Working as an ensemble also slowly brings dividends: there’s a fluidness to the way memories of their mum – always represented with a red dress – meld with the present moment, while moments of release (a mushroom trip; a dancing grandmother) are allowed to expand surreally. I liked, too, the decision to resist going full kitchen-sink naturalistic: a box of pink walls and a perspective stretching wooden floor are all we get.

Like Swim and Collapsible, Pelican Daughters doesn’t come to any terribly profound point. There is, seeded within it, an anxiety at the gap between the collectivist idealism of the Greenham Common generation and the floundering individualism of today’s young women. But – like Jack Thorne’s The End of History, currently at the Royal Court – the show also reveals the burden of expectation that generation can lay on their children, and refuses to judge either side.

This look at what it means to live with integrity as a young woman, combined with the soapier, comedy elements, made it really connect for me – then, I am probably absolutely the ideal demographic. But beyond all that, Pelican Daughters is a high-spirited show, by a young company who know what they’re doing – even if it’s not what we might expect.

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