A Gambler’s Guide To Dying
4 stars ****
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
3 stars ***
How To Keep An Alien
3 stars ***
4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
THE THEATRE of personal confession and autobiography has become intensely popular in British fringe theatre over the pat decade. Some analyse it as part of the shift towards verbatim and “reality”-based theatre, a kind of general revolt against fiction; some harshly dismiss the whole genre as the product of a self-absorbed “me” generation. There’s also the sense, for some, of theatre stepping up to replace an intimacy, and a deep knowledge of each other, that the sheer pace and competitiveness of modern urban life often seems to deny us; but whatever the reason, the theatre of personal confession certainly dominates this year’s programme in Traverse 2, with three of the five shows there taking the form of light-touch domestic narratives about a key moment in the lead performer’s life.
Gary McNair’s monologue A Gambler’s Guide To Dying is perhaps the most sharply-constructed and well-shaped of the three, a witty and thoughtful account of the last months of the life of McNair’s grandad, an inveterate gambler who, on being told he had only a month or so to live, decided to make his last days more enjoyable by betting on the length of his own survival.
In one sense, McNair’s show only adds a little weight to the growing avalanche of work on the Fringe about death and bereavement. There’s something about the idea of the bet, though – the risk, the bravado, this particular human way of plunging towards life’s absurd chances and uncertainties rather than trying to deny them – that gives the show a sinewy quality, a sense of real insight into how we strive to give meaning to our lives; and McNair is a truly impressive performer, charismatic, relaxed and fascinating to watch, as he plays both grandad and grandson, as well as a few of the other characters they encounter – hard men, mainly, and exasperated women – in the course of their west of Scotland lives.
If McNair’s tale is more about his grandad than himself, though, both Bryony Kimmings and Sonya Kelly plunge straight into the heart of their own experience, in telling identically-shaped stories of how they fell in love – in quite a traditional, hearts-and-flowers way – only to find their joy interrupted, and their love stories complicated, by problems with vast social resonances and ramifications.
Bryony Kimmings’s Fake It ‘Til You Make It, co-written and jointly performed with her partner Tim Grayburn, tells the story of how she and Tim, an advertising man, met in “dirty East London night-club”, fell madly in love, and moved in together; only for her to discover, a few months later, that he had a hidden long-term history of severe depression and anxiety. The style of the show is slightly surreal, with touches of pleasing oddness, and some truly superfluous bad dance; but essentially, it’s driven by Kimmings’s own passionate, heart-on-sleeve monologue about how she dealt with the discovery that the man she adored wasn’t quite the person she first thought.
The show’s purpose is clear, as education and agitprop. Tim and Bryony want to encourage men to talk more freely about their mental health problems, and not to feel ashamed of them; and the couple receive a heartfelt standing ovation, partly for the triumph of love represented by the fact they they are still together, and Bryony is now pregnant with their first child. As theatre, though, the piece just seems too close to Bryony’s heart to bear comparison with her previous work, which was much more thoroughly-processed and highly-wrought, in terms of narrative, imagery, and performance.
In Sonya Kelly’s How to Keep Alien, the force that comes along to cloud the bliss of Sonya and her beloved, Kate, is Ireland’s immigration law, and the fact that Kate, who is Australian, has been ordered to return there on the expiry of her visa, just two weeks after the pair first get together. Sonya Kelly is a tremendously witty and entertaining writer and performer; and this tale of love frustrated and finally triumphant is delightfully presented by Kelly herself, on a whimsical domestic set, with her performer/stage-manager Justin Murphy on sound and keyboards offering the odd vocal interlude. Given the sheer prominence of immigration as one of the key political issues of our time, though, it is more than strange to watch an entire one-hour show about it which only once, for one fleeting moment, fully acknowledges the presence of all “the others” who are seeking entry to western Europe – for reasons far more tragic and terrifying, and with far less chance of success.
So it therefore comes as a relief to encounter, in that same Traverse space, not only Andy Duffy’s powerful Play, Pie And Pint solo drama Crash, now revived for a Fringe run, but also the theatrical wildness and stringency of Pardon/InCuffs, the latest show from SKaGeN of Belgium presented in Edinburgh as part of Richard Jordan’s Big In Belgium season. Based on documentary material about the French justice system compiled by the award-winning Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon, this three-handed one-hour burst of theatre, set on a high revolving platform, involves a series of ever-shifting reactions between state prosecutor and alleged criminal, brilliantly performed by the show’s creator Valentijn Dhaenens with Clara van den Broek and Korneel Hamers.
The three actors change roles constantly, although van den Broek is always a sexy woman in a light-gold silk evening dress, Dhaenens is always enigmatic in a suit, and Hamers is always a bit of a buffoon, with a flowery shirt and bow tie. And what emerges from their intensifying interaction, is a strange, disturbing meditation both on the erotics of criminal justice – the attraction of power, the seductive force of those willing to transgress – and the arbitrariness of the forces that drive some of us into high positions of social responsibility, and others into the criminal underbelly of society. Pardon/In Cuffs is not an easy piece of theatre; but it has a memorable maturity and intensity, and a tremendously welcome willingness to try to engage through theatre with some of the most complex undercurrents of our civilisation – its anger, its complicity, and its deeply contested sense of what constitutes good, evil and justice.
Until 30, 30, 30, 30 August
pp 327, 321, 334 and 356.