Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
5 stars *****
Underbelly (Venue 61)
4 stars ****
Traverse @ St. Stephens (Venue 101)
3 stars ***
Underbelly (Venue 61)
4 stars ****
Assembly Rooms (Venue 3)
4 stars ****
THE STREETS OF CENTRAL EDINBURGH have an image to maintain, do they not? They’re gracious, elegant, even dignified; we imagine them inhabited by well-to-do people, going about their decent and respectable business.
It’s not, though, an image that can survive even ten minutes’ exposure to the shattering power of Roadkill, the new show from Ankur Productions and Pachamama of Glasgow presented by the Traverse Theatre as part of this year’s Fringe. Outside the theatre, an audience of 12 or so board a little bus. At the last minute, we are joined by two young Nigerian women carrying bright pink suitcases; then the bus whisks us through the city, to a flat on a familiar street. Martha is in her mid-20’s, smartly dressed, slightly hard-faced; the other girl, Mary, is much younger, a 14-year-old schoolgirl in a white dress, full of excitement, expecting a holiday with her “auntie” in a thrilling foreign city.
When we reach the flat, though, what follows is horrific; a brief, brutal rape by her “auntie’s” handler, a long imprisonment in a permanently darkened basement bedroom, and a relentless series of male clients – ten, twenty, thirty a day – whose sexual demands reduce this beautiful, hopeful little girl’s life to a living hell.
There is no counting the ways in which Cora Bissett’s production shatters, disturbs and challenges us, as we sit on little chairs around the walls of the rooms that contain Mary’s suffering, like a bunch of voyeurs who have paid for the thrill of witnessing it. The sheer quality and integrity of Stef Smith’s script, and of three stunning performances from Mercy Ojelade, Adura Onashile, and John Kazek, force us to face our own complicity in Mary’s abuse, even if it is only a complicity of silent ignorance. The documentary material on which the text is based compels a recognition that the demand for this shocking trade penetrates right to the heart of our society. The brilliant use of wall-projected images by Kim Beveridge, and of sound by Harry Wilson, transforms Mary’s room into a flickering cave of memory, or centre of hope, as poignant as it is unbearable.
And for those of us who live in Edinburgh, this great piece of art demands that we recognise, on our skins, that this abuse and enslavement is taking place not in some distant red light district that we can push to the margins of our minds, but within the very fabric of our city, possibly even in the flat next door. On a Fringe not short of shows that try to explore or exploit the theme of sex-trafficking, in other words, this is the one that is beautiful, brilliant and powerful enough to break into people’s hearts; and perhaps even to change their minds.
If failure to protect young people like Mary is a key sign of a society in trouble, though, then this year’s Fringe is full of shows that clatter like alarm-bells, alerting us to a deep crisis in our ability to offer young people the combination of love, hope and security they need. Jack Thorne’s terrific 60-minute monologue Bunny – presented at the Underbelly by Nabokov, with Watford Palace Theatre and the Mercury, Colchester – is the story of Katie, a troubled 16-year-old white girl in Luton, played by Rosie Wyatt with an electrifying combination of streetwise earthiness and heartbreaking vulnerability. Cruising the streets with her black boyfriend, Katie is drawn into a frightening underworld of violent feuding among Asian gangs, in which women figure only as victims or whores.
What’s terrifying about Katie, though, is the extent to which her outwardly nice, middle-class, liberal upbringing seems to have left her so damaged, and so bereft of real self-esteem, that she is unable to resist the abusive behaviour of the men she meets. Thorne’s script never offers a full explanation for Katie’s disturbance. It does, though, leave an indelible image of her deep, unspoken desperation; helped not only by the force of a superb performance, but by a backdrop of fine black-and-white line-drawings of the streets of Luton, morphing, changing and darkening as Katie follows her troubled path through the town.
The latest show from the young-people-focussed Company Of Angels – directed and adapted by John Retallack from the novel by Richard Milward – occupies similar territory. Playing at St. Stephens church under the Traverse banner, Apples is an Adam-and-Eve story set in the urban jungle of a modern British town where a Mum’s best advice to her teenage daughters is to “enjoy life as much as you can”; meaning, apparently, that they should get blind drunk three nights a week, and have sex with anyone they blunder into while too sloshed to see straight.
The point of the story seems to be that none of this has anything to do with true love; the geeky hero Adam never has sex with the girl of his dreams. The moral backdrop of the play, though, is much more grim than Retallack’s brightly-coloured, sharply-choreographed production seems to allow. The language is ear-singeingly explicit; and for all the talent and energy on display, I was left feeling that I would hesitate to expose anyone under 18 to this show, just in case they haven’t quite reached the level of casual and brutal sexual experience it portrays as normal.
Davey Anderson’s Blackout, at the Underbelly, raises similar issues about the level of violence it portrays; at times, in the context of the Fringe, this story of a young Glasgow boy on a probation sentence for violent crime looks like a classic piece of underclass porn, living up to every known stereotype about life in the streets and towerblocks of Glasgow.
Here, though, the theatrical means used to tell the tale are perfectly matched to the story in hand, as Neil Bettles’s production – for new Glasgow-based company ThickSkin – swirls its five-strong cast around the space in a vivid combination of dialogue and movement, and throws triptychs of powerful photographic images onto screens at the back of stage. The music is deafening but well-chosen; and the story of James’s violent dad, broken family, dying grandad and lost, aimless and ultiimately vicious youth is predictable, but superbly told by Tom Vernel and a fine supporting cast.
After such a relentless exposure of lost and damaged youth, though, it comes as a glorious relief to witness Nilaja Sun’s magnificent monologue No Child, playing at the Assembly Rooms. Sun’s New York monologue is a classic Blackboard Jungle tale about an idealistic young drama teacher trying to create a production in a tough high school in the Bronx. The kids are poor, damaged, often living under terrifying conditions; the play is Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, in which a group of convicts and jailors in an Australian penal colony begin to break free from their inner prisons by performing a play together.
There’s an inevitable tinge of sentimentality about Sun’s story, of course. But it’s performed with a terrific, hard-edged skill that offsets any sense of wishful thinking. And the point it makes – about the fragility of our public education systems, in the face of huge economic inequalities and pressures on public spending, and about the absolute moral right of every child to the well-funded educational opportunity that can change lives – could hardly be more timely; or more powerful, and heartlfelt.
Roadkill until 29 August, p.284. Bunny until 29 August, p. 235. Apples until 28 August, p.227. Blackout until 29 August, p.232. No Child until 30 August, p. 274