It was the best of times, it was the worst of times – everyone has a pandemic story to tell if they want to. For playwrights and theatremakers, the lockdown of venues forced a grim professional hiatus and afforded the luxury of time to create, Judging by the standard of new writing on this year’s Fringe, that time was spent fruitfully and we now get to taste the bittersweet results.
Theatre PR Laura Horton used lockdown to realise her nagging ambition to become a writer. Her debut play Breathless **** now playing in the Pleasance Courtyard, following development at the Theatre Royal Plymouth where she is Laureate of Words for 2021-22, arrives fully formed.
Inspired by her own hoarding behaviours, it follows Sophie, a shy thirtysomething woman making tentative steps forward in her love life while she stagnates behind closed doors. Madeleine MacMahon gives a note-perfect performance as an aspiring writer embarking on her first same sex relationship, which has yet to breach the walls of her own flat.
The reason for her hesitant hospitality is hinted at in her backstory as she recounts her difficulties in clearing out her first flat to move back in with her parents – “moving was change enough”. Sophie’s obsession is signalled by the dress covers hanging on a rail behind her – she loves a designer sale. These sales are safe havens and dangerous waters as she clings to her treasured items without even bothering to wear them, breathless with anxiety at what might happen to her hoard after she dies.
Horton captures the sadness and isolation of hoarding, legitimising it as an illness, a destructive compulsion rather than an eccentric quirk. Sophie has the denial of an addict – she’s not that bad, surely, as she carefully constructs a maze through her latest flat – and, like any addict, the path to recovery comes first with an acknowledgement that she needs help.
Ode to Joy, Summerhall
Gordon, the repressed Scottish government civil servant at the centre of Summerhall hit Ode to Joy *** also needs some help – and not just with his dad dance moves. Liberation comes in the unfettered form of a gay couple, delightfully monikered Manpussy and Cumpig, who prepare this Cinderella for the debauched ball that is Berlin superclub Berghain.
Ode to Joy, written and directed by James Ley, is an uproarious romp – a PG (aka Pig Gordon)-rated performance of an X-rated adventure which comes with a handy glossary of gay sex terminology for the uninitiated. Speaking of the uninitiated, Brian Evans plays Gordon with knockabout naivety, like a BDSM Norman Wisdom, writing Brexit impact statements by day, discovering chemsex by night.
This is gay theatre made by gay people, telling their own unvarnished, unmoderated truth – and falling back on the Cinderella trope because, let’s face it, she has all the best outfits, and the inflatable rubber creations here are worth a star on their own.
The political allusions, however, with Gordon seeking his own form of European union are shoehorned into the text in gleefully tortuous style. Did someone say torture? Step into their dungeon…
Ghosts of the Near Future, Summerhall
A very different atmosphere pervades the same space earlier in the day. Summerhall’s Dissection Room is the ideal setting for the forensic multi-media presentation that is Ghosts of the Near Future ***, billed as a “cowboy-noir fever dream”.
Weird things happen in the desert – alien abduction, nuclear testing, wanderings off into the sunset. Weird things happen in Vegas – who yet can explain the success of Matt Goss’s show? – and weird things happen in this show. A man dressed as a rabbit tells us about the love of his life (his cat), a showgirl sips a gasoline martini poolside, the performers take a break halfway through to eat hot dogs while Elton John’s Rocket Man plays karaoke-style on the screen above.
This same screen is used to show the magnified image of a micro stage set in a box, meticulously depicting the parched desert landscape where a preacher, a magician and a nuclear physicist – the protagonists as such – first meet en route to Las Vegas.
Show creators and performers Emma Clark and PJ Stanley have made such a good job of creative misdirection that it is hard to make any sense of the sum of these intriguing parts. Perhaps it is best to approach Ghosts of the Near Future as some kind of oblique David Lynchian fable.
And then the Rodeo Burned Down, Space Niddry Street
There is also a prevailing air of mystery around another hallowed American environment in audacious Fringe debut And Then The Rodeo Burned Down **** performed in the round by New York-based writer/performers Chloe Rice and Natasha Roland at theSpace @ Niddry Street.
This short but almost perfectly formed piece combines cowboy iconography, customised costumes, fluid movement with a hint of sleight of hand and the engaging chemistry of the two performers in an interrogation of (mostly) masculine identity. Rice plays the rodeo clown, desperate for a promotion to big time rider, but she is haunted, wooed and challenged by Roland as her eager shadow, named Dilly Dally, the egocentric strutting star cowboy and even the rodeo bull Arnold. If that’s not enough for forty minutes, the duo also posit a play within a play, meaning there are no clear, never mind happy endings here.
Breathless, 15.00, Pleasance Courtyard, until August 28
Ode to Joy, 16.20, Summerhall, until August 28
Ghosts of the near future, 12.00, Summerhall, until August 28
And then the Rodeo Burned Down, 15.40, The Space@ Surgeons Hall, Until August 14