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For Exeunt: Team Viking

team viking

With a loop pedal and a slightly shattered heart, James Rowland stands alone onstage. He wears scuffed trainers, odd socks and a viking helmet. Paddling his way through our emotions, he tells us an extraordinary tale of grief, robbery and Christmas pudding. 

Growing up, Rowland used to play vikings with his best friends Tom and Sarah. That childish delight never really disappeared from their friendship, so when Tom is diagnosed with incurable heart cancer, it is only fitting that he asks his two best friends to give him a properly spectacular ending: a viking funeral.  

It’s funny how much someone can make you care about another person just through words and a few bad jokes. As Rowland describes Tom’s devastating deterioration, humour and sadness jolt through each other like an electric shock passing through water.

The way Rowland carves this story is at once beautifully groomed and wonderfully raggedy. His style of speech is causal and tangential, yet each strand of story is carefully gathered together and tied neatly, providing such a sense of catharsis, with layer upon layer of emotion offering us a full, thick fabric of a life. A loop-pedalled song divides the piece up, providing a respite to let the words settle, and Rowland’s slightly scratchy voice that sounds as if he’s had a pint before the show only serves to make it more charming. This play simply swells.

Team Viking is about grief and friendship. But within its humility and simplicity it holds so much more. It is anger for the things that weren’t good enough. It is joy for the little moments that make up existence. It is the look passed between friends when someone says something you’re too polite to outwardly react to, but you both think is utterly ridiculous. It is the joy of gathering with a group of strangers and sharing a story. It is the innocence of a child and the awkwardness of a teen. It is the awful urge to laugh in a tragic situation. It is fiction being better than real life. It is the excruciating faults of humans. It is the pain of living and the unfairness of death. It is wanting to be remembered after you are gone. It is the details you add to make a better ending. It is, I reckon, a little bit golden.

I watched Team Viking sitting next to one of my best friends. At the most overwhelming point of the show, when my face wasn’t so much streaming with tears but rather had itself become a puddle, he gently touched my arm, just to say that he was there. I put my hand on his knee, to say thank you. I think that’s what this play is about.

Original: Exeunt

For Exeunt: Team Viking

For Exeunt: Lists for the End of the World (Edinburgh review)

lists

Things I liked about Lists for the End of the World:

  • That they try to tap into the nostalgia that gives a little warm glow from trivial but personally important things.
  • That they blend future/past/present.
  • The line: “I’d steal all my ex-husband’s money and donate it to charities he’d hate.”
  • It reminded me of Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing.
  • The aim: “Make someone laugh in another language.”  This was one of a few moments that conjured a silent smile and a little shiver of warmth, like when you think back on a happy memory.
  • The moments of crossover from separate lists like: “I love you”, “Fuck”.
  • That it made me want to write my own set of lists about goals and reflections.
  • That their lists don’t have a number so they could always either be complete or always have the potential of having more items added.
  • The list: “Times my eight-year-old self would be proud of me.”
  • That they let me in when I was four minutes late.

Things I didn’t like about Lists for the End of the World:

  • That actually, when you think about it, it simply seems to steal some of the best bits from Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing and doesn’t offer much in way of authenticity.
  • That the cast of four read out certain lists like Oscar speeches and dark confessions, overacting as if they carry far more emotional weight than they actually do.
  • That they are too emotional. The joy of lists is their matter-of-factness. They are a way to dissipate stress and excess emotions by laying them out on a page. They are an organisational function. Their delight is precisely the lack of emotion. No matter how frivolous the list, they carry logic and reason, and try to do away with overly passionate feelings. Here, it felt like the production team had a sweet collection of lists pinned on a wall and decided that the best way to stage it was by throwing intense balls of emotions at them, like that balloon-paint scene in The Princess Diaries.
  • There is no undercurrent of story.
  • It’s like a Forced Ents list-reeling endurance test without the endurance.
  • The game seems more fun for them than for us.
  • All shows are in a tougher position in Edinburgh than in a usual run of a show because audiences are generally seeing several shows a day, so the “meh” shows tip out people’s minds if they’re not either spectacularly good or astonishingly bad. Because of this, companies are under pressure to try to make more of an impact. With Lists for the End of the World, they suffered from their own attempt to get us to sit up and pay attention through the cheesy music, dramatic emotional switches and over-energetic direction. Really, their movements around stage were an unnecessary distraction. The crowd-sourced lists were delightful, blending the lightness and darkness of every life, at once nodding to individuality and the lack of originality of human beings. Unfortunately, for us to enjoy the lists, it didn’t really need to be a play.
  • The cheesy song choices.

Original: Exeunt

For Exeunt: Lists for the End of the World (Edinburgh review)

Allen Wright Award 2017

ed

Topping off a wonderful week in Scotland, I’m delighted to have been awarded the Allen Wright Award for Reviews by The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society.

Allen Wright was the first Arts Editor of The Scotsman, and the paper’s Chief Theatre Critic. The award began 19 years ago and is designed for the best arts writing by writers under 30. The award for best features went to Arusa Qureshi.

I’m over the moon to have been chosen as the winner of the reviews category, and I’m thrilled to be part of a gang of writers contributing to the discussion of some of the best, worst, strangest, most uplifting and devastating theatre around.

My submitted reviews for the award:

Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here – Exeunt

The Believers Are But Brothers – Exeunt

BlackCatfishMusketeer – Fest

Announcement: EdFringe

Allen Wright Award 2017

For Exeunt: The Believers Are But Brothers (Edinburgh review)

alipoor

Blue lights illuminate the theatre like popping candy. WhatsApp. It’s a death threat. I click the screen off and it flashes again. A rape threat. Click. Something about a K-bar. Click. They’re flashing up too fast to read them all. I click the screen blank again. It lights up. I turn it over.

The Believers Are But Brothers is an exploration of the power of the internet; of loneliness and of radical jihadis; of men and their machines.

Part of the show takes place on WhatsApp. The threats are posted in the instant-messaging group made for each performance, with all the audience members added in the queue before the show. Creator Javaad Alipoor shares memes and articles in the group to help illustrate his words on stage. It quickly turns darker, as between audience members offering examples of the most disturbing things they’ve watched online, anonymous trolls begin to slip in hostile warnings. The threats are fictionalised but it’s not hard to find similar threats on any 4chan forum or Reddit chain.

This digital illustration – this sped-up insult mosh pit- is a demonstration of how the the secure end-to-end encryption network is used away from the public eye. But it’s also more than that. A few hours after the show, my phone will flash again. It will announce the terrorist attack in Barcelona. That night Islamic State will claim responsibility. The next morning the death toll will rise. Alipoor’s digital tap on the shoulder in The Believers serves as a reminder that while some of these words and stories are fictionalised, this situation is all too real.

Alipoor has spent months delving into the dark depths of the internet, bantering with IS recruiters, engaging with 4chan trolls and trying to understand the network and actions behind digitally-tentacled terrorists.

However brutal its content, this show is delicate in its approach and is never gratuitous with its violence. Alipoor fuzzes and hides the most grotesque imagery, leaving gaps for our imagination to fill. A river of blood washes the screens. Alipoor describes a generation of men in crisis. His language is both intellectual and poetic, painting pictures of incredible savagery with a brush thickly coated in detailed research. He focuses on three men: Marwan, Atif and Ethan. From very different starting points, he explains how each draws closer to radical Islam.

The play demonstrates how the internet can be used for that space between irony and evil. How rape videos can be shared for the lols. How memes were made mesiah. How recruiters reach out to their warriors. Above all it reveals a deep-seated loneliness in the men who engage in all this. In Graeme Wood’s prolific book The Ways of the Strangers, he finds something similar. He interviews supporters of Islamic State and reveals how, when taken away from their movie-like propaganda videos and passed a cup of tea, they are just lonely men looking for purpose. The Believers adds to this by demonstrating how forums empower them, and how their belief becomes their comfort blanket. These men grab onto an injustice they see being fought against. They get a glimpse of the community behind it. They want in.

Alipoor’s language leaps between intellectual and poetic. It is beautiful storytelling but the speed at which this show travels- with multiple strands traversing the stage together- means that each character’s narrative needs a little more clarity.  It almost overloads with information. The impact of its individual stories would be greater were it to slow its pace a little, and clarify its edges.

But it does serve to provide an example of the strength and scope of Islamic State via the internet. It demonstrates the power loneliness and isolation hold in the creation of a monster. When a man in the internet age is disregarded and angry at injustice, it is not hard to see the allure of a group who offers him power and purpose.

Throughout the show, Alipoor is not alone onstage. A man (Luke Emery) sits quietly behind the screens, illuminated but ignored. Though Alipoor is honest with us from the start about himself, Emery is never introduced. He sits facing us, hiding the content of his screens. We assume he is controlling the WhatsApp group, YouTube videos and projections that illustrate the men’s stories, but as the show progresses, we begin to suspect that we are not his audience. As the brutality builds and the tentacles spread, we get the impression that Emery is communicating with a different set of blue lights. A different pack of popping candy spread across the globe. The fictionalised men from Alipoor’s stories have stepped out of the screen and now hide in plain view, centre stage and purposeful, waiting for their moment.

Original: Exeunt

For Exeunt: The Believers Are But Brothers (Edinburgh review)

For Fest: Between the Crosses (Edinburgh review)

If stories are not continued to be told, the lives they contain can be wiped away like chalk on a blackboard. In the basement of Edinburgh’s Army Reserve Centre, Will Huggins preserves the story of his great uncle Edgar, a veteran of the First World War. This is a story of boys thrown into battle, of horses and of dreams never quite realised.

Dotted with recordings of Edgar’s voice, collected by the Imperial War Museum, there are delicate moments of humour and love. As it becomes clear that Edgar was resistant to talking about the darker details of his time during the war, perhaps the greatest reveal is the guilt of being alive some soldiers feel, that surviving somehow makes you less of a hero.

Huggins acknowledges that as a child he unconsciously glorified his great uncle’s trauma, looking at a war wound with “horrified wonder”. Here, he approaches the topic with care, but the pain is never blistering and he moves too fast to let it settle.

Huggins illustrates his words with chalk, noting dates, names and ill-prepared attack strategies like an old fashioned lecture. The pedagogical style seeps into the content. It is a tragic story but told by numbers. This personal history lesson is an important record, but could be just as impactful, and perhaps more so, were it made for radio.

At the end of the play Huggins wipes the blackboard clean. He leaves two numbers: year of birth and death. In the end, this is how most of us are remembered. While this may not be the most accomplished play, it is lovely that Edgar’s story can now also be remembered by strangers through his great nephew’s performance.

Original: Fest

For Fest: Between the Crosses (Edinburgh review)

For Fest: Mies Julie (Edinburgh review)

Yaël Farber’s thrumming production returns to the Fringe after it first stalked the stage in 2012. Creating a vivid, bloody drama of race and class, August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is transposed to post-apartheid South Africa. The intensity holds throughout as Julie (played with feral desire by Hilda Cronje) tempts her manservant John (with an avalanche of a performance by Bongile Mantsai) in this production which roars for its full 90 minutes.

The love between the impossible duo is so ferocious the stage seems to beat. Their destructive passions never settle, power constantly throwing them across the stage. A gun is pointed one way then the other. Lungs crack and blood seeps.

Though Julie and John’s bodies fit together, they are unable to find any sense of harmony. There is a temporary moment of calm where tensions reduce to a simmer, limbs bubbling to touch, before cascading once again into a thumping, savage haze. Over the haunting, metallic tune of the onstage band, they replay the tensions between their ancestors as they rip wildly at each other’s cores. The vast theatre is not ideal for the intensity of the production, but it pulsates regardless.

While bundled in the illicit couple’s searing lust, the production also shows how John’s mother is traumatised by her past, agony tangible in her song. The tragedy of the ignorance of youth is revealed in the last few moments of the play, as the dust settles, and John’s mother is left to clear up the devastating mess.

Original: Fest

For Fest: Mies Julie (Edinburgh review)