Lynda Radley’s new play, Futureproof, rewinds back to the sort of travelling roadshow immortalised in Tod Browning’s film Freaks, redrawn for the cyber-punk age by the likes of the Jim Rose Circus and last seen in an episode of television sitcom My Name Is Earl. Rather than muck about with the actual trappings of such low-rent vaudeville, Radley has penned a relatively conventionally structured peek behind the stage curtain to say something about self-definition, reinvention and the perilous necessities of both.
Robert Riley’s Odditorium provides sanctuary of sorts for Tiny the fattest man in the world, armless and bearded Countess Marketa, Siamese twins Lillie and Millie and hermaphrodite George/Georgina. Then there’s Serena, who dons a mermaid’s tail and can’t or won’t talk. With the punters away, a serious makeover is required to make the acts a more attractive proposition.
What follows in Dominic Hill’s swan-song production for the Traverse in association with Dundee Rep is a lovingly human exploration of what it means to be different, and just how easily it is for alliances to be severed and communities fractured when selfishness and progress come home to roost. Robert Paterson’s new slimline Tiny predicts the extremities of faddy diets, Irene MacDougall’s clean-shaven Marketa is effectively airbrushed into acceptability, while Ashley Smith and Nicola Roy’s Lillie and Millie want to be individuals in their own right rather than remain literally joined at the hip.
Paced beguilingly slowly and underscored by John Harris’s elegiac piano and accordion soundtrack, there’s something here too about how radical outsider art can be commercialised into respectability in a homogenised cultural marketplace. Only Natalie Wallace’s Serena, it seems, is too normal to fit in. While she literally goes “back to the sea” like some primordial missing link, unable to move on, George/Georgina embraces new apparel, walking tall and proud in a thoroughly modern world.
The TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) have slowly but surely become the artistic conscience of a younger generation questioning their country’s all-consuming capitalist culture.
As they return to Edinburgh for their new collectively created show, Mission Drift, The TEAM head to Las Vegas, the former area of barren desert turned shining city of slot machines, star-spangled cabaret and legitimised mobsterism to explore a boom and bust landscape that is currently an epicentre of America’s housing crisis.
Dovetailing the latter-day stories of a laid-off casino worker and an American Indian, whose house was forcibly sold to the city, with Dutch teenagers Catalina and Joris’s 1624 arrival in the promised land, Mission Drift unravels an impressionistic history of growth, greed and, ultimately, spectacular folly.
Delivered in a pick-and-mix collage of post-modern pop references, political theory and live art, Mission Drift’s cast of four are aided and abetted by a live band led by singer and pianist Heather Christian. The result in Rachel Chavkin’s production is the most mature and cohesive TEAM show to date. As the feathered head-dress sporting Miss Atomic, the dynamic Ms Christian becomes part Greek chorus, part bar-room cabaret turn using gospel and blues to create a brand new and well overdue set of protest songs.
As we move into a 20th century of A-bomb tests, Elvis and avaricious over-expansion, Catalina and Joris put their identities in hock several times over as Vegas becomes one almighty if somewhat tacky metaphor for a greater fall-out beyond.
As Catarina finally runs away from the desert, spiralling back on her and her adopted city’s own past, there’s hope of getting things right this time in a play that itself is a piece of well-buffed collectivism in action.
The majority of former Soft Cell singer Marc Almond’s 1980s peers may confine much of their activity these days to the thoroughly entertaining nostalgic package tour circuit, but for his first Edinburgh Fringe appearance this most singular of artists is being far more ambitious.
Ten Plagues finds Almond on-stage alone regaling us with Mark Ravenhill’s libretto inspired by the London plague of 1665 set to the solo piano music of composer Conor Mitchell. In Stewart Laing’s production, this is scaled up to a stark but no less moving piece of music theatre involving video projections cast onto a wooden-boarded room where a black-clad Almond takes flight from the maze of barren music stands below.
Over the piece’s 15 songs, Almond stretches both his voice and his performative abilities, as he recounts the simple need to go shopping in spring before things turn nasty. Confined to the room with images of a presumably doomed lover beside him, Almond embarks on a moving journey, his voice wracked as he clings to memory.
There are times when Ravenhill’s lyrics sound tailor-made for a generation who grew up with the spectre of AIDS, as on a telling titled Farewell, which could sit alongside any of Almond’s own torch tragedies. With Almond hunched up alone at the end of this hour-long show, love and loss have clearly made their mark on his character, but ultimately Ten Plagues is about survival.
Survival is the crux of The Wheel, a major new play by Zinnie Harris for the National Theatre of Scotland. The play may open in 19th-century Spain, where Beatriz is preparing for her sister Rosa’s wedding, but before long the army have moved in, along with a little girl whose father has just been exiled. Taking the girl reluctantly under her wing, Beatriz chases after the girl’s male protector, only to embark on an epic quest that lurches across war zones, continents and centuries, before finding herself back where she started.
Somewhere along the way Beatriz’ mute charge has moved from being angel to apparent devil, a silent witness to brutalisation who seems to have acquired strange mystical powers some might call evil.
Harris has set up a thrillingly audacious presence that looks at the corrupting influences of poverty, violence and this thing called society on an impressionistic mind. Vicky Featherstone’s production leaves things even more wide open on Merle Hensel’s multi-tiered breeze block bomb site of a set, through which Catherine Walsh’s Beatriz and her acquired brood clamber like some magical realist Mother Courage.
As a mountain of shoes spill out of a cupboard, it’s an inherently moral line Harris is taking on whether any of us are born bad or have it thrust upon us by circumstance. There are hints too in the final scene that the whole thing might have been some hallucinatory Wizard of Oz style fantasy by Beatriz, as she chases an elusive father figure and guiding hand to call her own. The Wheel remains a powerful and compelling indictment of neglect either way.
Further performances at various times to August 28, except Mission Drift, which ends August 14.