Following the lead of theatre-makers such as Bryony Kimmings, in town with the devastating I’m a Phoenix, Bitch (Pleasance Courtyard), a generation of younger makers are exploring their own lives - and often trauma - with varying degrees of success.
Some, like Travis Alabanza, who is at the Traverse with the mighty Burgerz, are doing it with real flair. But others still seem to be looking for the form to match their story, or in some cases even a story to tell. I have seen impressive work from Nicola Wren at the festival in the past, but Superstar (Underbelly), about growing up as the younger sister of Coldplay’s Chris Martin and what telling what it’s like to have Gwyneth Paltrow attend your school play, feels more of an extended anecdote than full disclosure.
Nicola Wren in Superstar. Photo by Karla Gowlett.
There is a kernel of something interesting here about being the last, accidental and over-looked child in a big, high-achieving family, yearning to be centre stage. But Wren never really explores the emotional ramifications, always looking for the laugh rather than the truth. It’s a pity, because she sells herself short.
Mental health is a big issue on the fringe, as it has been for several years and it’s one that is explored in Demi Nandhra’s Life is No Laughing Matter (Summerhall), a sensitive and often entertaining plunge into how hard it is to ask for help if you are depressed, and how harder still it is to access what you need once you do ask. One doctor suggests that Nandhra eats more bananas; another that she gets married. Nope, neither are much help and Nandhra gets maximum comic mileage from both in a show that has an appealing directness and real sadness and rage at the way mental illness is seldom treated as seriously as a broken leg.
Demi Nandhra in Life is No Laughing Matter.
Suicide and suicidal thoughts also figure in Doug Crossley’s Give Me One Moment in Time (Pleasance Dome), not as you might imagine an hour-long tribute to Whitney Houston, but rather a tribute to Crossley’s nameless director friend who killed herself, and his own struggles with trauma. To cope, he learned the piano from scratch and he plays and sings intricate ditties about goats and getting older. Sometimes they seem like a distraction, which may, of course, be the point, but if the show has a slightly meandering quality it also feels like a heartfelt love letter to a lost friend and to Crossley’s own resilience in the face of trauma.
Bolder in form is Leyla Josephine’s Daddy Drag (Summerhall), in which Josephine appears on stage bearded and pot-bellied, as her own late father, and in the process recalibrates her relationship with him. It takes a while to catch fire, but gradually we start to see the real man emerge through his daughter’s eyes as he transforms from the sausage-swinging, beer-swigging life and soul of the party to something sadder, more troubled and more troubling.
There are a couple of devastating moments here, including one at a wedding, where daughter suddenly sees her father not as the greatest dad in the world, but as other’s see him. The mixture of live performance spliced with recorded interviews with Josephine’s mum, recalling the man she once loved so passionately, is effective. But most effective of all is the final sequence, a near silent period when Josephine scrubs the beard away on her face as if trying to remove all trace of her father. Impossible of course. Her cheeks glow red. You cannot escape your parents, but you can come to terms with their legacy, the good and the less good.
Leyla Josephine in Daddy Drag. Photo by Daniel Hughes.
The show that precedes Daddy Drag in the same space at Summerhall is First Time, an unabashedly heart on sleeve, crowd-pleasing show but also a crucial one for raising awareness about HIV. Nathaniel Hall was just 16 when he started his first full sexual relationship with Will Young look alike, Sam. A couple of months later on a family holiday he starts to feel ill and shortly afterwards is diagnosed with HIV.
But this is a show about other firsts too and it is very cleverly put together wrapping its messages up in quizzes, pop culture and glitter canons. It is cheesy as hell, but it is so blisteringly honest that it earns and owns the emotion it generates. It is full of sentiment but it is not sentimental.
I’m a Phoenix, Bitch runs at Pleasance Courtyard, Aug 16-25.
Burgerz runs at the Traverse, Aug 16-18, 20-25.
Superstar runs at Underbelly, Aug 16-25.
Life is No Laughing Matter runs at Summerhall. Aug 16-18.
Give Me One Moment in Time runs at Pleasance Dome, Aug 16-26.
Daddy Drag runs at Summerhall Aug 16-18, 20-25.
First Time runs at Summerhall Aug 16-18, 20-25.
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