The Human Ear
4 stars ****
Roundabout @ Summerhall (Venue 26)
OF ALL the shows I’ve seen on this year’s Fringe, Alexandra Wood’s latest play, presented by Paines Plough and directed by George Perrin, is perhaps the most dazzling technical tour-de-force, in terms of its demands on actors. Performed with astonishing split-second timing and precision by Sian Reese-Williams and Abdul Salis, The Human Ear interweaves at least five conversations between one woman and two – or is it three – different men, taking place over a time-span of more than 15 years.
The shift between conversations is signalled by a change in lighting state, and occasionally by a longer blackout, marking a pause; and so we gradually come to recognise the woman, her long-estranged brother who suddenly appears on her doorstep, her new partner Ed (a kindly policeman), and also the brother and sister when they were much younger, crashing their way through the final, hurtful row that led to their estrangement.
What Wood’s text does, in other words, is to mirror what ha[pens in our minds when we are in one moment but remembering others, last week or long ago; the incidents happen chronologically, but the memories are all present in our minds at once, overlapping and sometims colliding. The effect is strangely moving, reminding us of how vulnerable we are to sudden memories, and how difficult it is to concentrate, when they crowd in to distract us. And if the play collapses into everyday explanations at the end, it remains a brilliant idea, perfectly executed; and a strange, resonant story about family relationships and the need for resolution, told in ways that make it not only poignant, but absolutely riveting.