Ed Fringe 2019: Review. British Council Showcase and other work.

September 6, 2019

Edinburgh Fringe: 2019

In the last week of August I was lucky enough to attend the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019 and experience work taking place as part of its British Council Showcase, as well as a small selection outside of this. 

The atmosphere in Edinburgh at Fringe time is electric. At each year’s event the population swells – according to some estimates, doubles. The streets are busy from first thing to the early hours; the festival changes the status of these streets, suspending and shifting the business-as-usual. 

I attended at the invitation of University of Leicester’s Attenborough Arts Centre (AAC) – Leicester’s flagship and consciously inclusive arts centre. A poet/performer and one of AAC’s associate artists, I was also representing both Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust (LPT) for whom I co-direct a long established and nationally unique, Arts in Health Service – and attending as the Artistic Director of WORD! – a literature based organisation delivering one of the longest running spoken word nights in the UK, uniquely co-produced by an NHS Trust. Both LPT’s Arts service and WORD! are in residence at Attenborough Arts Centre, with both contributing to the delivery of the venue’s spoken word programme – so nuff said and context given. The following reflects my personal highlights, with all views my own. 

If there’s a criticism of the Fringe as a concept it could be its size. With over 3000 shows to choose from playing out between August 7th and 31st, many artists I encountered bemoaned the difficulty and emotional rollercoaster of pulling audiences in, even with such an expanded pool to draw from. Perhaps in recognition of this increasing situation, as much as of a broader national picture of increased competition, political uncertainty and awareness of mental health issues – this year saw a series of events offered the Ed. Fringe Central participants hub, in partnership with the likes of Equity, Spotlight and the Independent Theatre Council – to support artists with their personal development and wellbeing. Sessions focused on everything from how to market more effectively and attract media reviewers…to how to deal with bad reviews and look after your mental health. With more and more work – relative to previous years – seeming to take a confessional approach and drawing on difficult personal material, one British Council partnered session (led by BCS Alaska’s, Cheryl Martin) particularly focused on how both artists and audiences might be supported to deal with the potential emotional fallout.

Cheryl Martin – Alaska

Attending as an artist with a focus on spoken word – and in terms of health, mental health in particular (our NHS programme is based within adult mental health services – though we try and support across our Trust’s other divisions) the shows I opted to see had a slight bias towards this latter theme. A couple of hours after landing in the city, I found myself at Summerhall, a key venue for BCS events and formerly home to the Veterinary School of the University of Edinburgh. I headed to one of its most intimately proportioned spaces, the Anatomy Theatre for Jonny Donahue’s: Forgiveness – a case in point.

Jonny Donahue: Forgiveness (Work-in-Progress)

Following a disarming/charming meet and greet with the audience outside the doors to the space, Donahue introduced himself as a happy person with severe clinical depression – plus dyspraxia and a difficult backstory. Inside the theatre, this absorbing work in progress piece was relayed simply, with just Donahue, a stool and the space’s permanently fixed blackboard chalked with that word, ‘Forgiveness’.

Donahue was captivating from the start. An artist famed for his 400, over 4 continents performances of previous work, ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ (a work exploring depression – and eventually commissioned and screened by HBO) – he spoke eloquently, in an off the cuff way that was belied by its detail and flawless ease. He spoke about forgiveness but also truth, as he unfolded a story composed of stories, pockets of lecture, stand-up, or reflection, zoomed in to then out of. In a structure that saw him assert, then retract, reveal then unpick his own previously apparent truths, he reflected, in an engageable with and humane way, on the legacies of abuse, and the ‘work in progress’ nature of forgiveness. 

Daddy Drag: Leya Josephine

Daddy Drag was another work taking place at Summerhall as part of the BCS, and exploring amongst other things, forgiveness in the context of paternal relations. Leyla Josephine, a Scottish artist from Glasgow, introduced herself to the stage dressed as her father, in dad pants and convincingly stuffed vest, complete with false facial hair, bravado speech and swagger. In a compelling and charismatic performance, Josephine deployed a number of devices to explore, interrogate and present her subject’s character – from direct audience interaction (the onstage inclusion of a willing audience member to share a drink and go fishing…) to audio recordings of interviews between her and her mother, on the subject of her father – listened to and interacted with by her father, herself in ‘daddy drag’. In an impressively paced and structured piece, humour and laugh out loud joviality paved the way for and later exploded, engagement with serious, difficult and complicated personal, social and cultural issues – but always in a humane and compassionate but honest way. The piece was brilliantly designed in terms of set; a sofa come wedding banqueting table, come river bank – and used music – but also silence, brilliantly towards the end. It talked about love, acceptance and again forgiveness and was for me poignant, difficult and ultimately extremely satisfying and generous.

Skip Skip Skip – Leanne Moden

Outside of the Showcase and over at the Banshee Labyrinth, the exploration of more personal material continued. in Skip, Skip, Skip – a work-in-progress piece by poet and performer, Leanne Moden, she moved from parental relations to reflect on more coming of age and adolescent formative experiences. Reflecting on and connecting such themes as tribalism, gender, knife crime, otherness and the power of friendship to make sense of it all. Such extracts as ‘I am not beautiful but I am powerful, and that is beautiful’ – will stay with me. 

Back at Summerhall, Cheryl Martin’s, Alaska – explored the experience of growing up with severe depression. Her performance was engaging in so many ways and I’ve written about it at greater length in a separate article. 

On my second day at the fest I began with the unlikely juxtaposition of a children’s show, Sparkle, followed by Rachel Mars’ piece: Your Sexts are Sh*t: Older Better Letters.


Sparkle, a collaboration between the Hawaii based, Honolulu Theatre and Scottish theatre maker, Annie Cusick Wood – focused on children aged 3+. The show’s inspired set, designed by Karen Tennent – was simply but beautifully composed and included the centrepiece of a one man tent-come-igloo – standing for home, school and later chrysalis like transformation. The two performers, Tina Uyeno and Nathaniel Niemi presented the story of Sparkle, a little boy who loves sparkly things, tiara’s, tutu’s and sparkly dresses. Sparkle attends his first day at school and encounters society’s response. 

The 40 minute show was nothing short of magical, made more so by the late appearance in the audience of two actual children! (Many BCS targeted industry professionals were already in place.) With a sub plot of shadow puppets; music, lights, bubbles, telescopes, ladders and chiffon – this beautifully tactile piece asked important questions about gender and equality in a way that was reassuring and accessible for small children and adults alike. 

Your Sexts are Sh*t: Older Better Letters – Rachel Mars

At 11am each day, Rachel Mars’ brilliant show could not be more eye catchingly placed, or different. Your Sexts are Sh*t: Older Better Letters, juxtaposed the love and sex letters of historical figures – with examples of modern day sexting and correspondence – to both comic/hilarious – but also serious and thought provoking effect. Moving between two screens of projected text – older letters to the left, contemporary screen-grabs to the right, Mars read letters from amongst many others artists and writers – James Joyce to Nora Barnacle, Frida Carlo to Diego Rivera, Gertrude Stein to Alice B Toklas… and both interpreted and allowed the material to speak for itself. 

A glorious romp through desire, sex, love and lust, the show was both questioning and playful around the nature of intimacy, its language and contribution to identity and taboo. It was a revealing celebration of queer, female and other narratives and through sex, permission to understand and connect with what unites us, and makes us different. 

The letters from James Joyce to Nora Barnacle both book ended and were used throughout, but with the information that none of Barnacles letters in response to Joyce’s had been preserved. Her absent voice was recreated by Mars in an invented letter, shared towards the end – shocking, outrageous, filthy, triumphant and both empowered and empowering for its reclaiming of narrative and agency. Who’s stories matter, and what happens when they’re told?

These themes and questions were continued in two other spectacular BCS presented pieces, Witch Hunt and Blodeuwedd Untold. Both used myth and allegory to explore female narratives – and also magic, literally and/or symbolically.

Blodeuwedd Untold – Jo Blake

In Blodeuwedd Untold, Jo Blake unfolded the myth of Blodeuwedd (pronounced Blo-day-uth) – a story taken from the medieval Welsh book of Mabinogion – of a woman made out of flowers, turned into an owl for committing adultery. In Blake’s retelling, the magic was of the shamanistic order; I thought of Joesph Beauys, the socialist sculptor/painter/print-maker etc…Tracy Emin, her tent, her bed…or Rachel Whiteread’s, House. In Blake’s Blodeuwedd, objects were transfigured and transformed. She spoke and moved in the centre of a small black box theatre space – surrounded by a bowl of water, and a bowl of rose petals – mother and Blodeuwedd…with moccasins – foot maidens…and several metronomes – the king, the hunter and the magician… 

Blake’s fantastic retelling blended storytelling (it was a shock to learn that her compelling script was unscripted), with spoken word, dance and physical theatre, to create a highly visual, oral composition. A renaissance woman then, like by coincidence that other Blake (William) and with both too drawing on myth to create new worlds. A fluent and fluid performer both orally and physically, she deployed a range of means to think about the role of myth in contemporary life, and the unconscious, untold ways in which myths might work to influence our culture. 

Told in the Mabinogion by 14th Century monks, the story of Blodeuwedd is an inditement of women, a warning and a punishment; for her sins, Blodeuwedd is transformed into an owl, a scavenging creature forced to live at night. Blake reflects on and challenges this conception of Blodeuwedd, made of flowers for a man. She tells a different story, about women, desire and power – and whatever else myth – as she had it, a slippery word – would have us see. 

Witch Hunt – A&E Comedy

Witch Hunt continued to think about myth and the stories that are told about women. Wickedly witch-tastic, sexy, funny, hilarious, bawdy, clever and feminist – the magic, was also, actual magic – in the form of suggestive saw-playing, incredible glass tricks and disappearing, reappearing women, springing out of boxes, literally, and symbolically.  

The A&E Comedy duo, Abigail Dooley and Emma Edwards played for laughs from the start; this was ‘a one women play, with two people’; they walked on stage, two slightly older female performers, dressed as crones in witches hats and gowns – one with enormous prosthetic hands, the other with teeny tiny spindly ones. 

In this cabaret arrangement of fairytale inspired pieces, there was narrative and a serious undercurrent. How are women and older women perceived, in and out of performance? How can myths and fairytales show or be deployed to reveal the ways in which women have been hunted and objectified throughout the ages, and most pertinently, now? From a red velvet clad sexbot, to a Boris Johnson inspired wolf, to Hansel and Gretel about to embark on a path, Hansel’s well lit and grassy, Gretal’s dark and stony. It’s funny when they do it, and not.  

The chemistry between the two performers was amazing and spell they cast on the full audience I was in, mesmerising. 

This year’s Fringe also contained works thinking about our current domestic and global political climates. In the new venue of ZOO Playground, Nick Field’s Unicorn Party took to the stage, and both myth and apocalypse beckoned. 

Unicorn Party – Nick Field

Dressed in a purple, Joan of Arc style wig and electric make-up, Field reflected on the current ubiquity of the unicorn, from bags and lip balm – to Brexit negotiation solutions. The audience was encouraged to think about different versions of the unicorn myth and to consider the unicorn as a previously queer symbol of pride and otherness, now co-opted by Capitalism. 

Moving through different styles of performance, from comedy and physical theatre to co-creation, Unicorn Party reflected on how our imaginations can be Capitalised; how the roots of fascism are all around us and how they are able to grow if we are encouraged to look away. With on-stage candy floss making, music, movement and brilliant staging it was an immersive and especially important for now experience. 

One of the final pieces I saw at the fringe, and a massive highlight for me, was Hold on Let go, a show presented by Unfolding Theatre, directed by Annie Rigby and performed by Alex Elliott and Luca Rotherford – in the performance I saw – joined on stage throughout by BSL interpreter, Caroline Ryan. 

Hold on Let Go

The performance explored memory – how, what and why we remember, and what will remain, or be remembered of us.

Alex is introduced as having two children and being twice his friend Luca’s age (so in theory, that much closer to the end of his life). Despite being gluten intolerant he explains, standing in the show’s beautifully constructed working kitchen stage set – that he’d like to teach us how to make the perfect sourdough bread – so that, in the event of his death, his legacy might live on. 

This intimate performance – like chatting in a kitchen with friends one night – for me struck just the right chord. With an original recorded soundtrack by Maxïmo Park frontman, Paul Smith, and just the right mix of movement (climbing up ladders, balancing on tilted tables, scrambling over units, etc) monologue and audience rapport/interaction – it contained both the ingredients and method for a memorable and thought provoking experience.

Supported by Luca, Alex struggles to remember the sound of his deceased mother’s voice, but instead reconstructs her through memories of food and hospitality. There is a smart and funny reflection on Anglo-Spanish relations; how does a English person invite you round for dinner – you must come over sometime…how does a Spanish person, or more accurately, Alex’s mum? What are you doing tonight? You’re busy? Ok – how about tomorrow? What time? 

There is also reflection on the consequences of forgetting as Alex recalls his grandmother’s experiences of fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Luca reflects upon the anxiety of memory. When (as is posited) 96% of the universe is unobservable and the remaining 4% we forget – are we remembering the right things? What do you do in the face of forgetting? Do we fear the weight of memory? How can we allow ourselves to remember?  

I should mention the meticulously stacked aluminium cans filling up the kitchen cupboards in memory of Alex’s mother and her stockpiling of such goods. Reimagined later by Luca in a flight of magic realism, each canned memory is water-falling over the brink of a black hole. 

There is too much to recall and convey about this beautiful production – which is sort of the point. The universe is endless and memory finite – we must balance focusing with relaxing – Hold on, Let go.

One last thing worth recalling however, was the brilliant way in which the performance worked to foster inclusion and audience engagement. Inclusive from the start, audience members were offered non-alcoholic cordial (made by Alex) as they entered the space and invited to share with Luca their memories of dance, as she moved through the audience, informally chatting. As the performance began in earnest, these gathered and remembered moves were name checked and incorporated into a joyous on stage dance – delivered by all three performers. 

Throughout the show the BSL interpreter, Caroline Ryan, an accomplished performer, worked in a fully integrated way. A long way from simply standing at the front, she moved with Luca and Alex as they travelled across the stage and greatly added to the performance with both her interpretation and non verbal interactions. It was a masterclass in inclusive theatre – and at the end? We all got a piece of the most delicious freshly baked bread. Oh to be so fed by all shows, and festivals.

3 Responses to “Ed Fringe 2019: Review. British Council Showcase and other work.”

  1. kathleen wagoner said

    Hi, thank you for your review of Sparkle! Did notice a typo error with Annie’s name. Her last name is spelled with one s not two…Cusick ..and thought you might want to correct it. Thanks!

  2. […] The 40 minute show was nothing short of magical, made more so by the late appearance in the audience of two actual children! (Many BCS targeted industry professionals were already in place.) With a sub plot of shadow puppets; music, lights, bubbles, telescopes, ladders and chiffon – this beautifully tactile piece asked important questions about gender and equality in a way that was reassuring and accessible for small children and adults alike.” Ed Fringe 2019:Review/secretagentartist […]

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