Blink, Continuous Growth
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****
Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)
LAST WEEK, I saw a work-in-progress at the Arches, in Glasgow, where they just came straight out with it. “Our subject is alienation”, they said; and then went on to express it in song. Now, in Edinburgh, here are two more shows about alienation; and although neither of them uses song as a medium, between them they demonstrate the huge range of ways in which theatre can work, when it comes to exploring the fractured relationship between individuals and society.
Phil Porter’s Blink – presented at the Traverse by the London-based companies Soho Theatre and Nabokov – is a brief, bright, exquisite 70-minute drama about the tentative relationship between Sophie and Jonah, an odd young couple who meet – after a fashion – when he becomes the tenant in the downstairs flat of the house she has just inherited from her adored father. Usually sitting at separate small tables, speaking into microphones, in front of a glorious broad-screen image of the garden behind the house, the two characters tell their stories; his of a strange upbringing in a religious farming commune up north, hers of bereavement followed by redundancy, and an increasing detachment from the world.
At first, the two circle one another at a distance, he stalking her, she encouraging him to watch her on screen, in a strange virtual flirtation; then fate throws them into a much more intimate relationship, at least for a while. In Joe Murphy’s luminous production, Harry McEntire gives an unforgettable performance as twitchy, unhappy Jonah; Rosie Wyatt is perhaps just a shade too self-consciously wry as Sophie, in a play that needs to focus on its own deeper resonances, more than on its effortless surface humour.
On its way, though, this fine piece of writing has plenty to say about the strange detachment of our increasingly individualised society, its growing voyeurism, and the inconclusiveness of the relationships that emerge within it; it also has a lingering, memorable sense – expressed in that garden, and the image of an old fox who lives there – of the disconnection from nature that seems, at the deepest level, to be part of our problem.
In one of those strange Fringe coincidences that haunt the imagination, an embattled urban fox also looms large in the latest show to emerge from the successful collaboration between the Pleasance, and Finnish companies Ace Theatre and Rhymateatteri. Continuous Growth is a new version by Scottish-based writer Catherine Grosvenor of a new Finnish play loosely inspired by The Overcoat, the Gogol masterpiece presented by the same team in 2011.
This time, though, their sweeping 80-minute account of a 21st century everyman caught up in the toils of crisis capitalism tells the entirely original story of one Andy Axelgrinder, a Scottish engineer and family man who finds that his immense practical skills in making and inventing things are no longer needed in the post-modern world, but who – after a period of dismal unemployment – strikes it immensely rich by devising ever-more elaborate automated systems for entirely replacing human beings, first as carers, then as parents, and finally as lovers and partners.
The wit and ingenuity of the play – first written by Esa Leskinen and Sami Keski-Vahala – knows no bounds, as it skewers every last absurdity of a global economy designed to serve itself, rather than the basic needs of the planet, or the people who live on it. And as Andy Axelgrinder, Billy Mack delivers a performance even more thoughtful and brilliant than his award-winning turn in The Overcoat; while the rest of the cast swirl around him, delivering a story as sharp and telling in the broad sweep of its political and social vision as Blink is, in its rich, almost microscopic study of the lives of two solitary souls.
Until 26 August, 27 August
pp. 261, 268