In the curious geography of the Edinburgh Fringe, where its thousands of shows are divided between rival venue operators, competing for reviewers stars, audiences, and bar revenues, Summerhall has claimed a unique place.
In the last half-dozen years the former Edinburgh University veterinary hospital has made a name as a refuge for the kind of adventurous, eclectic, committed theatre that makes the best of the Fringe. On good years it rivals the Traverse Theatre, the other go-to place for quality.
Firmly part of the Summerhall package now is the Roundabout, billed as the world’s first plug-and-play theatre, that sets up in a back courtyard.
This year it brought the pleasure of three very plays from Paines Plough and Theatr Clwyd all performed by the same trio: Katherine Pearce, Jack Wilkinson, and Charlotte O’Leary. It was fascinating to see these three very distinct actors, accomplished both in characterisation and some testing physical theatre, adjusting to different roles. In each Pearce, with her bright shock of orange-red hair and strong stage presence, was the pivot of the piece, with Wilkinson and O’Leary to some degree in orbit round her, though with barely less stage time, in slightly younger characters.
The outset of a show – what the audience encounters as they enter a venue – is vitally important at the Edinburgh Fringe.
It is the first instant measure of preparedness and professionalism, in a festival of snap judgements and fresh impressions. For the true Fringe buff or a full-time reviewer, on the hop between four or five radically different shows a day, it can settle the soul, focus the mind on the work in hand.
In Island Town, standing in the centre of this studio theatre in the round, Pierce as Kate awaits us as a haunting, solitary figure, full of the desperation that plays throughout this piece. The seats were filled at 11.30am with an audience much younger than the grey-beards like myself who are apt to make the bulk of a day-time audience in Edinburgh; word of mouth was obviously running high.
The roundabout theatre hands an advantage over most Fringe companies, with minimal props and lighting kits they have to import in rapid turn arounds.
The Roundabout comes with a sophisticated overhead lighting system, arrays of ceiling spot, used set and break up scenes. in Island Town, the characters are jerked into stiffness, knocked to the floor, by blasts of strobe lights between their encounters.
As Kate, Pierce, who trained at the Royal Welsh College, is a hard-edged young woman, but holding to a fantasy, even as she graduates from weed to ketamine: to get in her car and escape beyond the horizons of their Island Town, where nothing ever happens. Everyone of the three characters here is saddled with a heavily shadowed home life, broken families laced with anger: Kate with a dying father whose state care running out, O’Leary as Sam, who has the only job among them, who wants to shelter her younger sister from a violent father.
Wilkinson is Pete, dodging his dangerously violent brother, even as he’s jealous of his child, wanting a family of his own, for want of anything else to do, fantasising about a check-out girl.
Pete has a delightfully insane, absurdist sense of humour, a natural storyteller who would typically be positioned as the narrator of the story. As the three friends grow through confessional, darkly funny encounters in their teen years the frustration grows and the mood sours, as Kate urges them to escape the trap.
As the piece finds its way to a powerful climax I looked across at the faces in the audience: enthralled, immersed, moved to tears. Wilkinson’s transformation from the winsome Pete to his much harsher and older brother is particularly impressive.
How to Spot an Alien has an engagingly familiar premise: 12-year-old Jongo and sister Jelly, Wilkinson and O’Leary, head for bed with space on the mind, peppering mother (Pearce) with questions on black holes and the like.
They wake to find mother gone, replaced by a mysterious half-aunt (Pearce again) with an attic that’s off-limits. It’s Hansel and Gretel meets an inter-galactic imposter with a habit of twitching like the insects from Men in Black; Pearce ably shifts from motherly to monstrous. The Roundabout lighting set comes into its own, delivering sound and light play that satires Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
While witty and watchable, the drama lost its way for me in the closing segments when Jongo and Jelly escape with friendly help to an alien convention. This show is advertised for space cadets aged five and up; it’s great to keep the parents entertained too but there were adult references which might have met itchy feet in the fairly spartan number of children in the show. The piece seemed unsure of what age group was aiming for (a tricky question in the age of tablets and binge TV) and a bit more road testing of the second half might be in order.
In Sticks and Stones, Pearce is a mid-level manager with promotion on her mind and Wilkinson and O’Leary as her side-kicks in an all important bid presentation. She makes a joke using a possibly inappropriate word we never hear – chimes sound whenever it’s mentioned – and before long she’s clinging on in a social media storm, caught in a Kafka-esque corporate trap where to deny the offence is to admit it.
O’Leary is terrific as a cynical manipulator ready with a face of horror at Pearce’s predicament, and as her daughter, asking “did you know what the word you used actually meant?” Wilkinson excels as Fred, ostracised in the company for his incorrect attitudes but who turns out to be a clever dinosaur.
As a play about a word, without the word, the gimmick takes a while to settle; Sticks and Stones is a clever piece of writing about the perils of our new language codes but comes nowhere near the punch of Island Town.