For the next week, JESS HOWLEY-WELLS will be regularly reviewing shows at the Edinburgh Fringe on gender identity and sexual politics, as part of a scheme run by the Network of Independent Critics. 

DAY ONE – 22/7/17

Gracefool Collective’s This Really Is Too Much.

An apt title for the first show of my Fringe. Choosing 15/20 shows out of 3600 is no mean feat.

As the show opens, Kate Cox, Sofia Edstrand, Rachel Fullegar and Rebecca Holmberg of The Gracefool Collective sit centre-stage on four black chairs, wearing four black turtle necks in the black and cavernous room of The Big Belly (Underbelly, Cowgate). The show begins with a pregnant pause, they stare out into the audience – then, with no communication or warning, they begin to speak and move in perfect unison. ‘Look. Point. You’ve never had it so good.’ They are interviewers, and we, the audience, have become interviewees; their energy is undeniably hyper-masculine, and so it is presumed that you are the woman, being interviewed by the man – except not really interviewed, just told.

Photo courtesy of SFP Communications ltd.

And so begins an hour of deeply emblematic and absurd movement theatre, deconstructing the absurdities of gendered power-plays. To discuss plot would be futile – to even discuss specific characters may be going too far. The show is made up of punchy emblems and sketches. One recurring sketch sums up the tone of the piece: whatever they are in the middle of – acting, dancing or presenting – however serious or banal, when a specific song is played over the sound-system they all remove their clothes and grab an item indicative in some way of femininity, ish (lettuce, water bottle, moisturizer or cleaning spray) and move in formation around the stage in a sexy-grotesque mass. When the music stops, they grab their clothes and scramble back into them to continue their previous task – out of breath and distracted. In the second half, the music is switched on – they strip off and get ready to get in formation – then the music is turned off again, so they hurry back into their clothes, only for it to be switched on again, then off again – and so on. They look at the audience with degrees of defiance and humiliation throughout the charade – but they always act on the expected cue.

When ‘Sam’ goes to a job interview and is told that there are only jobs available for a ‘Nigel’ or a ‘Susan’, she assents to being a Susan. When describing herself she claims paradoxes, trying to tick every box – ‘I’m quite short, but I can also be tall’ – only for the word ‘NEXT’ to be shouted repeatedly from the wings. The beauty pageant character spends the whole show asking when a good time to discuss ‘fiscal policy’ would be – and ends up running laps of the stage in six-inch heels for five minutes in a manic attempt to be noticed. It is a world in which it is impossible for a woman to retain a sense of identity. The uneasy genre-less physicality of the whole performance and the subtlety of the writing (Gracefool Collective) makes it painfully clear that it is farce, drawn from the imbalances in gendered daily life. The product is an uncomfortable, probing piece of new writing that challenges what is expected – if not demanded – of women.

This Really Is Too Much is running at Underbelly Cowgate until August 27th. Find more information here.

Barely Methodical Troupe’s Kin.

Where This Really Is Too Much was a show of female competition, Kin explores a less political, but equally competitive male-female dynamic. Five men vie for the attention of a woman, demonstrating their individual and collective circus skills to win her approval. The woman deliberately pits the men against one another in this bleak talent show, whilst they are dressed in grey prison-like tones not expected of a circus act. Individually, they shine; Charlie Wheeller in his Cyr wheel is phenomenal, spider-webbed across the middle of the wheel as it spins around the stage appearing to defy gravity. The other men look on from pedestals at the back of the stage, wearing thorn crowns and adopting poses reminiscent of Grecian statues. The accompanying music adds a tint of comedy that complements the overblown machismo of the male performers. In another scene in which the men adopt these stances, Bobby Vinton’s ‘Mr Lonely’ fills the tent, and in a dramatic group see-saw sequence, Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’ takes its place while the men are flung impossibly high into the air.

Photo courtesy of Tristram Kenton.

The loveliest moments of the piece are those in which the characters forget that they are competing. They congratulate each other or look on smiling during the individual acts, or literally physically support each other when performing collectively. Circus arts rely on teamwork, so nobody gets dropped or broken. This underlies the competition that they are perversely coerced into; the Barely Methodical Troupe’s success in conveying a gendered dynamic without ever really using words is highly commendable. The unnerving, competitive silences are stunningly at odds with the energy with which the men support each other. Enough is said in the actions.

Kin is running at Underbelly’s Circus Hub until August 26th. Find more information here.

Laura Gauge’s The Unmarried.

The Unmarried is a spoken-word piece, decked out a little with music and physical theatre. It explores what kind of life a woman should value, and discusses promiscuity, marriage/non-marriage and desire. Lauren Gauge, the writer and main character (Luna) of the piece comes on stage  to the sound of thumping garage music, dressed in a lycra leotard and leggings. She is followed by Georgia Bliss and Haydn-Sky Bauzon, singer and beatboxer respectively. The ménage-a-trois provide rhythm and song and words to one another, collectively pulling the spoken word into a formal piece that keeps constantly fresh. The rhymes of the text occasionally fall flat (for example having invented a nondescript character named ‘Heather’ to rhyme with ‘leather’, twice, feels a little heavy-handed) but the musicality of the performance allows for the poignant phrases to really shine, and all three act/sing/beatbox with vivacity.

Photo courtesy of The Other Richard.

Ultimately, however, the character of Luna is too relatable to be gripping. She epitomises the struggle of choosing between the freedom of single life, or the boredom of a committed relationship. Her discussion of sex and ‘good times’ contrasted with talking about doing up her flat with her boyfriend is a little cliché and falls flat on the backdrop of such a well choreographed, directed and performed piece. It is a great shame, as the production is massively engaging – the audience is left with an insubstantial picture of who she is. Gauge’s effort to present the modern ‘everywoman’ results in a bold show that fails to make a bold statement; at the end of the day, Luna is lacking in depth of character.

The Unmarried is running at the Underbelly Med Quad until August 28th. Find more information here.

Stay tuned for Jess’s next set of reviews around the same time tomorrow. You can also keep up to date with her Edinburgh diary on our Facebook page.

Featured image courtesy of Lidia Crissafulli.