Release, Dust

Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)
4 stars ****
New Town Theatre (Venue 7)
4 stars ****

GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT; it’s a simple phrase, but to billions of ordinary working people, it represents the difference between a life that contains some hope, dignity and aspiration, and one dogged by poverty and humiliation.

Of all the candidates for work, though, in an increasingly crowded and competitive market, those least likely to succeed include young people with a criminal record; which is why Icon Theatre’s powerful 75-minute drama Release, playing at the Pleasance Dome, is a play that matters, even more so in the aftermath of the recent riots, and the subsequent sentencing of many young people to prison terms. Devised by director Nancy Hirst and her cast over a year of research and interviews, it tells the stories of three young people – two men, one woman – recently released from prisons, and their efforts to rebuild their lives. One fails spectacularly, with tragic consequences; one is seriously damaged by the probation staff who are supposed to assist him; a third encounters a small, simple moment of unexpected kindness and understanding, which transforms her life.

What transforms Release into something more than a useful piece of agitprop, though, is the compelling power of the narrative and characterisation – between them, the three actors create at least ten well-drawn characters, in the space of an hour – and the skill and pace of the production, which features some powerful and beautiful movement sequences, eloquent lighting and design, and a fine score by Chris Warner. In Release, Icon theatre have created one of the most compelling and theatrically effective pieces of storytelling on the Fringe; and as we watch with our hearts in our mouths, we are praying not only for these three characters, but for ourselves, and the whole future of the society we live in.

Over at New Town Theatre, meanwhile, Quidem Productions are presenting Dust, a loud, messy but richly enjoyable full-on drama about a thirty-years-on encounter among three veterans of the British miners’ strike of the 1980’s. The play is set sometime in the future, on the day when news breaks of the death of the miners’ great political enemy, Margaret Thatcher. In his penthouse flat, an elderly Arthur Scargill – a fictionalised version of the hell-raising leader of the National Union Of Mineworkers – hears the news with a mixture of relief and indifference; his publisher Barbara, once a young journalist covering the strike, feels much the same.

For veteran ex-union official Lawrence, though, the consequences of the defeat of the 1980’s are still agonisingly raw and real, played out every day in the damage done to his family and community by years of unemployment, and now by new threats to the useful public-sector jobs into which some have moved. Like Release, Dust therefore offers a powerful insight into the horror of unemployment, for those who cannot escape it. And although Ade Morris’s play – which he also directs – is all over the place, full of melodramatic plot-twists, unnecessary secrets, and improbable shouting-matches, it has a raw, grown-up energy, in its confrontation with the real economic history of the Britain over the last generation, that puts most other shows on the Fringe to shame; and wins roars of applause from audiences who find themselves both moved, and politically challenged.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29, 28
pp. 291, 259



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