The final instalment of reviews from Grace Patrick at the year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In this roundup, Grace catches the second of National Theatre Wales’ works dedicated to the NHS, Cotton Fingers; a stand-up homage to the Rhondda; Daf James’ play for Panies Plough, On the Other Hand, We’re Happy; Dirty Protest’s one woman show about Newport, How to Be Brave; and Remy Beasley’s Do Our Best.
Cotton Fingers (National Theatre Wales); Summerhall
For all its presence in international news – retraction of rights in the US, referendums in Ireland and in other countries – the subject of abortion in the UK often feels different, somehow. It’s just a given, a statement of fact. Regardless of personal feelings on the matter, if you need or want it, the laws enables you. Perhaps this is why, when it comes down to it, it is incredbily disturbing to be reminded that in Northern Ireland, people are still crossing borders to access this basic medical right. Cotton Fingers handles the injustices of abortion access from the perspective of one young woman, faced with the prospect of an overseas abortion whilst unable to confide in any of her friends or family.
The title of the play refers to tampons, using the name by which they are referred to in the text. In itself, this exposes something of a culture which doesn’t have room for honesty about the physical female experience. If injustice breeds in silence then this injustice is underpinned by a society which is more than prepared to consign anything deemed ‘inappropriate’ to the shadows. At the same time, however, it would be impossible to write about Cotton Fingers without writing about female solidarity. By making sure they carry sanitary products for one another, covering each other’s tracks where necessary and holding one another through moments of raw, all-consuming panic, the narrative is built around a spider’s web of women watching each other’s backs. If some elements of the play feel blessedly alien, this aspect feels deeply, inherently familiar.
Rachel Trezise’s script is a work of art. It’s a finely woven thread of past and present moments, tracing its way through a single life and the communities in which it exists to draw a picture of now. Amy Molloy is a powerhouse on stage, combining shards of a sharp attitude and wit with a vulnerability which makes it impossible to forget that she’s barely an adult.
While virtually every element of this play is draining to watch, the central horror lies in its proximity. This is happening right here, within the United Kingdom. It’s our problem, now. One character predicts that Nortern Ireland will be the next to see a change in its law, and that could – and should – come any day now.
Land of My Fathers and Mothers and Some Other People (Rhys Slade-Jones); Pleasance Courtyard
There’s a very interesting element to this hour of – stand up? Performance? It’s hard to know what to call it – which often goes unsaid when we think about where we come from. Even though Rhys Slade-Jones clearly cares very deeply about the wider social history of the Rhondda, this history is inextricable from the personal. We’re led into his early life and his experience of the Welsh valleys not through censuses and statistics, but through his mother’s diary from when she first met his father.
This really is, for him, the land of his father and mother… and then perhaps a few other side characters and spectators as well.
The decision to welcome his audience in person by person while dressed as a floral mari lwyd is definitely a bold choice. Possibly a slightly more visually disconcerting choice than anything else on offer anywhere in the whole of Edinburgh, but certainly memorable.
Even though Slade-Jones is more than prepared to laugh at his family and world and himself, he’s also a strong enough presence in the room to be able to do that alongside acknowledging the political factors which shape the individual experience. He’s able to recognise, for example, that raising funds for a town defibrillator, or previously paid employees returning to the social services as volunteers, is normal, but that it really, really shouldn’t be. The interplay of the individual and the political is absolutely centre stage.
If the show is hard to fully categorise, perhaps it is because more than just telling a story, Rhys Slade-Jones is creating a space in which to reminisce. It’s clear that plenty of the audience share similar memories of their own, and the hour shifts into something more like a discovery of significant common ground.
It’s funny and heartfelt, and instilled with a sense of perspective that can maybe only be gained by going away and looking back. Although not always fast moving, there’s a sense that it doesn’t want to rush when it can choose to take its time. For such a funny show, it’s also surprisingly reflective and sincere, offering an emotional openness which never feels unwelcome.
On the Other hand, We’re Happy (Paines Plough with Theatr Clwyd); Summerhall
In a single hour, On The Other Hand, We’re Happy ticks a lot of boxes. Arched over an extended time period, it engages with childhood love, family ties, the politics of marriage and class, and the adoption system among many, many other topical landmarks. It feels a little like stating the obvious, but its main flaw is that none of these heavy themes can be given anything like the time and detail that they deserve.
While this is a very accomplished piece of theatre, there’s a bit of a sense that the idea of adoption – and specifically of being an adoptive parent – is used as something of an emotional bargaining chip. While the immense grief and confusion that a four-year-old child would feel at being uprooted and relocated is only briefly touched upon, we spend a more significant chunk of time exploring the feelings of the adopters. It is impossible to forget that they are the people in this situation by choice and, when placed alongside the pain faced by the child and the biological parents, their turmoil over adoption conditions starts to feel minor by comparison. This is a play concerned with the middle-class travails of the adopters rather than the working-class trauma of the adoptee.
Paines Plough’s Fringe shows are performed in repertory, with the same actors performing different plays depending on the day. Out of all their work so far, this play offers two actors, Toyin Omari-Kinch and Charlotte Bate, some of their most complex moments. Unlike its companions in the set, On The Other Hand, We’re Happy takes frequent and confident strides into physical theatre, to such an extent that its words would often be without meaning were it not for the movement. Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster’s choreography and movement work is the backbone of this piece, giving it real coherence and life.
Daf James’ script is engaging in the questions it asks, but it is most notable for its cyclical structure, bringing flashes of the past into the present. It works wonderfully in tangent with Stef O’Driscoll’s direction. This is a chronologically complex piece, but her staging never allows it to feel convoluted or overworked.
It’s definitely an emotionally draining piece, which, despite perhaps sometimes focusing on the less interesting story, is certainly worth a watch.
How to Be Brave (Dirty Protest); Summerhall
In present day Newport, Katie is having a very difficult time. The smoke alarm is going off, her mother is under her skin and her daughter, referred to only as ‘little one’, is facing some kind of unidentified but impossible-to-forget challenge or danger later that day. Out of the entire play, it’s here in its early moments that How To Be Brave performs its most subversive act. Women, especially mothers, so often face a pressure to swallow their own terror and Get On With It, whatever ‘it’ may be, particularly in the context of supporting their children. Therefore, even though in the context it’s an incredibly hard to justify response, there’s something wonderful about seeing Katie instead take off, charge round Newport on a stolen bike, jump into a river bed and generally cause total havoc. That’s not to say that this is some kind of grand act of feminist theatre, but it is definitely cathartic to sit back and watch a female character do all the things that she is absolutely not supposed to do.
One of this play’s most developed accomplishments is its sense of place. Its internal geography seems to make perfect sense which, in a narrative that relies so heavily on a character moving around a town, is extremely important. However, where geographic location feels concrete and certain, there are plenty of moments where it’s not obvious whether the events narrated are as they happened, or if they even happened at all. Past and present are blurred in a way that leaves the narrator appearing spectacularly untrustworthy.
Towards the latter part of the play, some of the sentiments expressed and interactions between characters seem to be trying to ‘solve’ the unsolvable. The desire to square away all the problems is tempting, but in this case feels like a reductive response to the challenges that the characters face.
How To Be Brave certainly has its flaws, but a lack of heart is not one of them. Likewise, in terms of its takes on family and personal history, Sian Owen’s script is often an punchy and nostalgic piece of work.
Do Our Best (Francesca Moody Productions); Underbelly Cowgate
Today’s the big day; the one we’ve all been waiting for. After a couple of false starts, Sephie is finally going to complete her girl guides’ Entertainer badge, in front of a packed audience, probably with queues around the block, and Brown Owl, who possesses the sacred power to bestow the coveted badge itself. We’re very lucky to be here, quite probably witnessing the debut of this generation’s most distinct talent. Tragically, this baptism of fire may have to wait a moment, because Brown Owl has mangled her arm in a tractor. However, Brown Owl or no Brown Owl, the show must go on. The Guiding Association will have to accept a picture of the crowd for proof that it happened.
So, off we plunge. The past and present Sephie’s all crowd together on the stage, recounting the slight hiccups which undermined her previous Entertainer badge attempts, and the marks which her childhood has left on her adulthood. Under the cover of nine year old Sephie’s absolutely inimitable pride, and of course immeasurable talent, it starts to appear that her apparently shiny home life is actually a little harder to contend with. Performer and writer Remy Beasley weaves in threads of frustration and pain which are hard to make sense of as an adult, and even worse for a child. Under the veil of raw confidence, there’s a girl who needs to make noise, because otherwise she might disappear altogether.
As the piece progresses, Sephie grows into an uncomfortable version of herself. Seeking intimacy and comfort, both from her audience and people in her life, it’s obvious that sh never learned to be at peace in herself.
Underneath the comedy borne of the unmitigated horror of stagey nine year olds, this is a play which reflects intelligently and sensitively on what grief and emotional neglect looks like when it’s allowed to brew. It’s self aware enough that it doesn’t take anything for granted, and Beasley doesn’t seem intent on any particular reaction, although the same can’t be said for Sephie. Somewhere underneath all the bravado, Sephie is giving and kind, if insecure and frustrated, and it’s this dichotomy that it feels important to remember.
Beasley clearly has a talent for writing that could match her skills as a performer, and with the guidance of people like Francesca Moody, who produces here, and originally introduced Fleabag to Edinburgh, she is surely one to watch for the future.