Forest Fringe 2013

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JOYCE MCMILLAN ON FOREST FRINGE at Out Of The Blue, Dalmeny Street, for Scotsman Festival Mag, 19.8.13.
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IT’S EARLY in the day, at Forest Fringe; barely noon, and already we’re sitting in a sweaty studio theatre, with our chairs arranged in a circle around a strange-looking installation in the middle of the floor. It looks like an exploding sunset glimpsed through the bottom of a glass at some tropical beach resort, says playwright and poet Chris Thorpe, in charge of proceedings with his creative partner Hannah Walker; or maybe a woman’s hair streaming behind her as she runs…

But no. In fact, the installation on the floor is made up of all the mobile phones the audience brought in with them, switched on, beeping and messaging, sometimes being answered, sometimes being texted from elsewhere in the room; and what we’re doing, in Thorpe and Walker’s show I Wish I Was Lonely (4 stars ****) is contemplating the huge difference these tiny machines have made to our ways of relating to each other, in little more than a decade. It’s the first show of this year’s Forest Fringe, now up and running in its new venue at Out Of The Blue in Dalmeny Street, after losing its old home in Bristo Place; and for an hour or so, there’s game-playing and real-life reminiscence, in a show full of cleverly-orchestrated audience participation. But as always with Thorpe and Walker, there is also poetry, written by them and sometimes co-created by us, as they meditate with passion and sadness and excitement on this new world, and on the things we lose by being “always on”; not least the sense of really missing someone, since it seems real and complete absence, anywhere on the planet, is now fast becoming impossible.

It’s the kind of show the Forest Fringe has delighted in presenting, since it was founded back in 2007 – in the old Forest Cafe – as a kind of organised and experimental part of the free fringe; and six years on, its three co-directors – Andy Field, Deborah Pearson and Ira Brand – have developed it into a powerful Fringe theatre franchise, based in London, but spending much of its time staging events at festivals across the UK and beyond. It survives on a combination of basic funding from the Jerwood Foundation, audience donations, and a new partnership with the drama department at the University of Chichester. And its aim is simply to provide young and artistically ambitious theatre and performance artists with a space in which they can do the work they want to do; in front of an audience which often consists of their peers, but can also – in a community-linked venue like Out Of the Blue, with a zero ticket price – attract a large audience of theatregoers who simply love the adventurous, convivial atmosphere, and the unpredictable energy of the work.

This year at Out Of the Blue, Field and his co-directors are presenting around 30 shows and installations, ranging around the spaces of the old Drill Hall; and to judge by the day I spent there, there are some major themes emerging from the work of this generation of artists, now mainly in their late twenties and early thirties. There’s the one about communication and intimacy, in an age of intense electronic messaging when “real” relationships often seem out of reach; it’s reflected not only in Thorpe and Walker’s show, but also in Jo Bannon’s powerful five-minute encouter Exposure (3 stars ***), which uses darkness, and then occasional encounters with Bannon’s soft, very light-coloured gaze, to help us explore how we look at people, and how we do not. There’s also a frighteningly vivid if very static image-and-narrative piece called Nothing To Declare (3 stars ***), by the Dictaphone Group, three impressive young women from Lebanon, about the lost railway that once used to link Lebanon to Syria and Palestine, in a form of powerful real-world physical communication now completely lost to the people of that region.

Then there’s the theme about ageing, death and bereavement, pervasive on this year’s Fringe, and often – in the type of loose-textured, reality-based, highly personal performance that predominates at Forest Fringe – walking a fine line between a strong, disciplined treatment of a universal experience, and a self-absorbed statement of the obvious. Ira Brand’s A Cure for Ageing (3 stars ***) has plenty of discipline and reserve, but somehow seems reluctant to develop its material – which includes verbatim interviews with older people, including her own grandmother – beyond a few images and observations. Brian Lobel’s three-part installation and performance Mourning Glory (4 stars****) seems like a more dynamic project, represented here by a painstaking and beautiful reconstruction of emails sent and received by Brian during an intense relationship with his former partner Grant, who died a few years ago, in a powerful attempt to make permanent artefacts out of a fleeting form of electronic communication.

And then finally, there’s the theme about popular culture – films watched at home on video, or rock music in all its forms – and what it does to the imaginations and aspirations of a generation who often seem to have no other waymarks on the parth to adulthood. There’s Sam Halmarack’s poignant but beautifully-sculpted solo show Sam Halmarack And The Miserablites (4 stars ****) about being part of a bedroom band, and how to survive years of failure, way into middle life; Sam’s so lonely that we, the audience, have to fill in for the rest of the band. There’s rap poet Ross Sutherland’s Stand By For Tape Backup (3 stars ***), an over-emotional but memorable piece in which the two themes of bereavement and popular culture collide like lumbering pieces of space-debris, as Sutherland tries to remember his late and beloved grandad through a compilation video of films they both loved, or loved to hate, from Ghostbusters to Jaws, and an obnoxious 1980’s Natwest advertisement.

And then to round off the day, there’s Action Hero’s latest show Hoke’s Bluff (3 stars ***), which has us all waving little team flags and munching popcorn on the bleachers, as this talented Bristol-based company of only three performers – one referee, one hero-cum-coach, one cheerleader – attempt to combine a spoof on every High School sports movie ever made (“Remember, Tyler, watever it takes…”) with a darkly poetic meditation on the suburban and cashed-strapped reality of life for most contemporary Americans. It’s not a perfect show, and its texture sometimes seems as confused as it is rich. Yet there’s plenty of food for thought, in Nick Walker’s text created with the company, about exactly how we transmit values and ideas, in a society that – as the Forest Fringe generation are acutely aware – now spends more time staring at screens than looking into each other’s eyes; or learning how to love, how to lose, and how to mourn.

Forest Fringe at Out Of The Blue Drill Hall until Sunday 25 August, with new work by Tim Crouch and Andy Smith also opening this week.

ENDS ENDS

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