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Edinburgh Fringe: Traverse Theatre shows

Edinburgh Fringe: Traverse Theatre shows

August 11
01:13 2017

A year-round theatre for exciting new writing, the Traverse is a good place to start for visitors to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It may not offer the most cutting-edge cross-genre work — for that try Summerhall — but it’s far from “safe”. And this year’s programme feels more coherent than recent years’, much of it focused on gender, migration and race — themes reflected across the Fringe.

Adam Kashmiry and Neshla Caplan in ‘Adam’. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

Adam and Eve, two partner plays from the National Theatre of Scotland, tell true stories of gender transition. Adam Kashmiry spent his girlhood in Egypt before fleeing to Scotland. In Frances Poet’s Adam — performed by Kashmiry, making his stage debut, and Neshla Caplan — the personal and political collide as he watches the Arab Spring unfold online while navigating the asylum and health systems in Glasgow. Some of the dialogue doesn’t quite ring true, but deft video projection and music lend emotional power. The 120-strong cross-border trans choir, filmed separately and united on screen, provides a standout moment of the Fringe.

Playwright Jo Clifford’s Eve is both a memoir and a “manifesto” for queer acceptance — in particular, the belief that “a girl can have a penis”. Jo grew up John in starchy 1960s boarding schools, suppressing her pain. Sitting on a light box on a bare stage, old photographs projected behind her, she tells of that time, of marriage, fatherhood and finally living as a woman, finding peace. Co-written by Chris Goode, Eve is touching but overlong. Susan Worsfold’s production lacks pace and tonal variation, and is weighed down by Clifford’s slow, emphatic delivery.

First seen at London’s Orange Tree Theatre, Jess and Joe Forever, Zoe Cooper’s two-hander about growing up different, is a good fit at the Traverse, with its blurring of gender binaries. Jess (Nicola Coughlan) is a chatty public school girl on holiday in Norfolk, Joe (Rhys Isaac-Jones) a shy local lad spending his summer on the farm. But what seems a tale of unlikely friendship slips into something stranger. Skipping back and forth in time, they narrate and act out their story, microphone stands becoming fence posts in James Perkins’ spare design. It’s a funny, heartfelt piece brought to life by engaging performances.

Lilith: The Jungle Girl, from Melbourne company Sisters Grimm, is pure campy fun. Amsterdam, 1861: blustering man of science Sir Charles Petworth (a hilarious performance by Candy Bowers) and his lovesick colleague Helen Travers (Genevieve Giuffre) are pioneers of brain surgery. When a “wild girl” (Ash Flanders) captured in Borneo is sent to them, (s)he becomes a ragbag metaphor for slavery, assimilation and transgender rights. The show pokes fun at identity politics, and sends up white male privilege with clever colour- and gender-blind casting. It works better as a series of sketches — the lo-fi graphics, recurring gags and hammy theatrics nod to Monty Python — than as a coherent plot, but its silliness is irresistible.

For the past three years, Gary McNair has brought touching, confessional coming-of-age stories to the Traverse. He returns with Letters to Morrissey, which is about growing up on the fringes of Glasgow, where the C-word “isn’t really a swearword: it just means ‘person’”. As a teen misfit he idolised The Smiths frontman, beginning a long, one-way correspondence. McNair has a sharp ear for taunting banter, and as a performer he moves skilfully between his characters — occasionally tipping from winningly gauche to over-earnest.

Josette Bushell-Mingo performs ‘Nina — A Story about Me and Nina Simone’. Photo: Andrew Ness

Josette Bushell-Mingo’s Nina — A Story about Me and Nina Simone is also a love letter of sorts. The stage is set for a concert: as a drummer, double bassist and pianist begin to play Simone’s “Revolution”, Bushell-Mingo asks us to picture her as Simone looking out at her audience in Harlem in 1969, “a sea of afro combs”. The mostly white Traverse audience cheers along gamely, but the performance is losing power. Bushell-Mingo stops. “Was I supposed to just stand here and pretend?” she asks. Something cracks open and a new show begins — one that asks what happened to Simone’s call for equality. Nina is a deconstruction, not a tribute act. When Bushell-Mingo, “a poor black girl from the East End”, sings “Ain’t Got No (I Got Life)” it becomes her own. Simone, she says, took Bach, laid down a beat and made something new: Bushell-Mingo does the same, mixing biography and autobiography with an impassioned plea for change.

Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s Nassim also does away with theatrical convention. Each performance sees a new actor read an unseen script: a dialogue is established between the actor and Soleimanpour, whose hands appear by video link holding typed responses. We learn that he writes in his native Farsi and his work has been performed in 20 languages, but never in Farsi and never in Iran; his mother has never seen one of his plays. The conceit is that the actor will help Soleimanpour improve his English, but what emerges is a deceptively simple meditation on language, home and theatre itself — its thrilling liveness, its ability to move and connect.

Zinnie Harris’s Meet Me At Dawn stands apart in the programme: concerned not with migration or discrimination but loss. Lovers Helen (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Robyn (Neve McIntosh) are stranded on a beach after a boat accident. Helen — the practical one — reassures Neve that everything will be OK. But all is not what it seems. Neve remembers something that can’t yet have happened. The past tense contaminates the present; linear time collapses. Anchored by superb performances, this is a vivid evocation of grief — grief as a liminal place, a hollowing out of an imagined future.

To August 27,

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