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As we reach the final week of the Fringe, I visited three plays that seek to explore the controversial topics of homelessness, the female experience and hairdressing.
The Marked (Pleasance Dome)
Since 2010, homelessness in the UK has increased by 55%, and the presence of many people sleeping rough around Edinburgh is enough to jolt us Fringe-goers back to reality from our theatrical bubble. Is it possible to represent homelessness onstage and then market it for middle-class Fringe audiences without appropriating these people’s experiences? If anyone’s up for the job it would be Theatre Témoin, with their reputation for visually-stunning pieces devised in consultation with the underrepresented whose stories they tell. The Marked was created alongside Cardboard Citizens (a participatory arts and theatre company for the homeless) and various homeless charities, with feedback from 10 London hostels in July to polish the Edinburgh performances.
Few would argue that the homeless were not given a voice in the creation of the piece, and with so much of the play influenced by lived experience you’d expect a unique insight into homelessness. Sadly this is not the case. There’s a clear sense of their hardships – the cold, the hunger, the transience, and the casually hostile attitude of the general public – but homelessness isn’t really at the heart of the play. It’s primarily about childhood trauma, with the adult Jack (Bradley Thompson) still haunted by the nightmarish memory of his alcoholic mother. The narrative is elliptical and we’re never told much about the three characters’ backgrounds or how they became homeless, and are only given real access into Jack’s inner life. The piece aims to be more visually expressive, with its arresting use of masks and puppets.
The performance has a strong fantasy element, based in part on the influential 1997 news article Myths Over Miami by Lynda Edwards. In it she described how a complex mythology had developed among Miami’s homeless children, in which God has fled from heaven and good is on the losing side of a war between opposing spirits. There has been doubt over the validity of the article and suggestions that Edwards may have exaggerated her findings, but cynicism aside it is incredibly powerful stuff. Edwards hypothesises why the beliefs are so precious to the children, and how the thought “that somewhere a distant, honourable troop is risking everything to come to the rescue, and that somehow your bravery counts” has inspired them with a much stronger ethical code than their more privileged counterparts.
In The Marked, the demonic masked figure of Jack’s mother has clear parallels with Bloody Mary, the chief force of evil in the Miami mythology. Edwards interviewed ten-year-old Otius, who told her “some girls with no home feel claws scratching under the skin on their arms […] It’s Bloody Mary dragging them in for slaves – to be in gangs, be crackheads.” In some of the play’s most arresting imagery, black claws reach for Jack’s mother as she succumbs to drink, and eventually she undergoes a horrific transformation. The same dark forces appear to threaten Jack with a life of violence.
The power of Myths Over Miami is the communal nature of the stories, how traditional Judeo-Christian ideas of an all-powerful God could buckle under the weight of incredible hardship, and give rise to a darker yet strangely hopeful philosophy. In The Marked, the fantastical elements are a strange and poetic way of tackling personal tragedy, but don’t burrow to the heart of a shared homeless experience in the same way as the Miami children’s stories. Some of the promotional material described the theme of the play as “the link between trauma in childhood and homelessness in adulthood,” but this link, if hinted at, is never clearly spelled out. Jack’s is a personal mythology that helped him cope with his violent mother, not a shared response to homelessness.
With reviews ranging from two to five stars, it’s understandable how The Marked has provoked such mixed reactions. Visually it is truly stunning: glossily cinematic with commanding nightmare imagery. Thompson’s performance as Jack holds it all together, credibly presenting a mind capable of the turbulent fantasy presented on stage. On the other hand, there was never any attempt to take a political stance on homelessness, which occasionally functioned as merely a backdrop for the excellent puppetry and mask-work. The characters, whilst believably portrayed, were often given second place to the poetic visuals, and their history and background could have done with some fleshing out.
Perhaps the problem is that, with Theatre Témoin’s intricate methods for devising shows, you come expecting a shockingly fresh take on homelessness that is never forthcoming. It’s a truly enjoyable show, and occasionally very beautiful, but it never truly gets to the heart of the issues it wishes to explore.
The Marked continues until Aug 29. Tickets £12 (£11 concessions).
Torch (Underbelly, Cowgate)
Torch is another play that had a research-heavy development, inspired by a questionnaire on what it means to be a woman. It comes from award-winning playwright Phoebe Eclair-Powell, who’s also written Epic Love and Pop Songs for this year’s Fringe. Torch is part-gig, part-monologue, finding female solidarity in the anthems of Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift.
There are many moments in Torch where you feel it’s trying too hard to present the archetypal female experience, as if all the survey responses have all been amalgamated in Jess Mabel Jones’ character “F”. Eclair-Powell calls the piece “deeply personal,” but on another level it’s also deeply generic in its attempt to capture a single sense of womanhood. Torch touches on eating disorders, abortion and rape, but they all get around five to ten minutes, which comes across as a bit light-weight for such serious issues. The fact that the anecdotes are regularly punctuated with songs doesn’t help either, making the story even more fragmented than it was before. It feels like a checklist of women’s issues, with an artificial rather than organic construction.
The music is also sometimes hard to get your head around, performed with much gusto by Mabel Jones but not really acted as such and sometimes adding little to the narrative. It feeds into the show’s punk vibe, and the idea that Mabel Jones can instantly switch from candid confessional to swaggering through a belter in her big boots keeps the narrative arc set vaguely to empowerment and celebration. The musical aspect is never really explained in the context of the story aside from a glancing reference to the songs that got F through hard times at the end, making it seem more gimmick than innovative structural device.
Audiences are unlikely to leave Torch with any clearer idea of what it means to be a woman than they came in with. So much of the show feels unfinished: at one point the monologue starts subtly rhyming, as if hesitantly threatening to break into a spoken word piece that never materialises; straight after concluding that her flatmate was probably raped Mabel Jones merrily drifts in to a weirdly sultry take on Smells Like Teen Spirit and then never mentions it again; and to top it all off, the affirmative ending seems almost to come from nowhere.
It’s confusing that Eclair-Powell should have chosen a one-woman show as her preferred method of tackling womanhood in the first place. “It has felt like a conversation between a lot of women rather than just my thoughts,” Eclair-Powell said of the writing process in an interview with The Skinny, so surely to reflect this it would make more sense for the play to be a dialogue between different characters. Rather than a single speaker and therefore a single female experience, something like the restaurant scene from Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls would have been a fun way of bypassing the episodic narrative and appreciating a variety of different and conflicting ideas of womanhood.
Much like The Marked, Torch has bitten off more than it can chew, and in its attempt for breadth sacrifices some of its power. It’s a stylish production with a superb performance from Mabel Jones, but Eclair-Powell’s script feels underwhelming and confusedly put together.
Torch continues at the Underbelly Cowgate until Aug 29. Tickets £11 (£10 concessions).
Foiled (Ruby Rouge Hair Salon)
Rarely is a play marketed so heavily on its venue, but much of the promotional material for Foiled revolves around it being the first Fringe show to be staged in a working hair salon. Though an experience that’s a refreshing break from your average proscenium arch (or in the case of the Fringe, tent or conference room), sometimes it can become a bit of a gimmick which detracts from the play itself. The return of 2015’s Cut is an example of what’s simultaneously great and frustrating about this theatrical sub-genre: an immersive horror inside the cramped aisle of an aeroplane, which nevertheless dilutes its nascent poetry with a slightly banal obsession with total darkness and loud noises.
Foiled, on the other hand, is disarmingly conventional, and doesn’t let its site-specific USP get in the way of its storytelling. Co-writer and star Beth Granville plays Sabrina, a hopeless hairdresser looking to cheat her way to a prestigious “Clipadvisor” award. Her machinations are interrupted by Richie (Dominic Morgan), a bald out of work actor looking for a Charles I-themed hairdo for an audition. If it all sounds lack the wacky premise of a new sitcom, that’s very much what it feels like. In fact that’s entirely what Granville was aiming for, describing Foiled as a “sitcom for the stage” in an interview with The Vile Blog.
Like a sitcom, the hair salon gives the kind of naturalistic setting most often found on television, and most of the humour is based around extravagant farce and larger-than-life characters, with Stephanie Siadatan’s Tanisha taking on the familiar role of the “straight” character to give the audience a way in to the drama. As theatre, especially in such an unusual venue, it does benefit from being a bit more of an event: part of the fun is seeing confused passers-by peering through the windows at the bizarre antics inside or having Dominic Morgan in full Charles I attire storm out into the street.
It never relies too heavily on its setting and holds up well as a drama, with a consistent stream of outrageous behaviour to keep a smile on the audience’s faces. Granville may be playing an overblown version of negative hairdressing stereotypes, but there are a few touching moments when you realise her dependence on her father and tactics to avoid becoming a responsible adult. Morgan and Siadatan, meanwhile, deliver a repertoire of aghast and exasperated expressions.
In the end, the play is nowhere near as idiosyncratic as its site-specific venues suggests. Rather than being a strikingly different piece of theatre, the hair salon actually makes Foiled even more of a traditional, sitcom-influenced comedy than a more conventional venue would allow. It’s possibly the closest theatre can come to television, doing away with the traditional suspension of disbelief required in more traditional performance spaces. You’re likely to be disappointed if you thought the interesting venue suggested a risk-taking and boundary-pushing approach, but Foiled is a likeable comedy in a cosy atmosphere, which much of the time is satisfying enough.
Foiled continues until Aug 29 at Ruby Rouge Hair Salon (no performance Aug 25). Tickets are free.