Tom Lamont reviews Dance Marathon, Sold, Release, Thirsty, Young Pretender and Translunar Paradise
My Hawaiian hula wasn't up to scratch, I knew, even as I concentrated hard on undulating my arms and maintaining a look of mid-Pacific content on my face. Still I was dashed when I felt the tap on my shoulder, the floor judge shouting above the noise of a live band to tell me that he wasn't seeing quite enough wiggle in my hips ? and with that, after almost four hours of doing the Twist and the YMCA and the Charleston and the Gay Gordon, my shirt soaked through and my legs trained to work a perpetual two-step even between numbers, I was eliminated from Dance Marathon.
It had been an intense first day at the Edinburgh festival, eight consecutive hours of broody fringe theatre that explored a spectrum of contemporary ills, putting me more in the mood for a local scotch and a long, hard think about society than a lengthy disco. Yet Dance Marathon (put on in a converted rehearsal room beside the Traverse theatre) proved irresistibly good fun, prompting me to unexpected feats of energy. It was part cabaret, part dance class, part gladiatorial deathmatch, with every audience member required to dance whether they wanted to or not, urged along by chirpy comperes from the American theatre group Bluemouth Inc. Occasional skits broke up the endless bopping, as did frenetic bouts of competition that whittled a hall of 80 dancers down to two eventual champions; and it is with a helpless little grin of triumph that I reveal that I made it to the final eight ? the semi-finals! ? my passage there secured after a vicious ballroom-dancing race. After that came the hula, and ruin, but I still left Dance Marathon smiling.
A relief, after a day of the heavy stuff. At the beginning of last year's fringe, the first show I happened to see was an intense hour in the Pleasance about sex trafficking, a play endorsed by Emma Thompson, the actor a prominent campaigner around this issue. In 2011, it was weirdly similar: this year's festival opened for me with Sold, also at the Pleasance, also endorsed by Thompson, also unflinching in its exploration of the same troubling subject. But whereas the 2010 play, Fair Trade, made its case by highlighting the specific traumas of two individuals sold into the sex trade, Sold opted for weight of information, bombarding the audience with stats and information before shifting into a hyperactive historical montage, then settling to tell the concurrent stories of about a dozen characters. I was very taken with Sold, the complicated production sleekly handled and the youthful-looking cast very impressive; but I was also aware that Fair Trade wasn't last year's only play about human trafficking, and that for regular Edinburgh returnees the subject might begin to feel overmined.
Another Pleasance production, another topical woe. Release told of a trio of former prisoners, newly out on probation, and not handling it too well. Scenes of their life after prison ? too often torpid and hampered, with tons of admin to get through ? were set against frenzied glimpses of their time inside. I was particularly caught by the story of the probationee who found that aimlessness and boredom, more than anything else, proved the trickiest part of release after all the canteen fights and urgent gossip and communal Hollyoaks marathons in the jug.
Friendlier, less hectoring than both Sold and Release, was Thirsty, an examination of British drinking habits, focusing specifically on young women. No, stay, sit ? that makes it sound about as zingy as a government pamphlet, but this hour at the Pleasance was brilliantly easy to digest. The story was told from a trio of toilet stalls, for a start, kicking off with a blast of Beyonc� and ending with Bonnie Tyler, some genuinely thoughtful questions posed between about why Brits find booze a must; about why it tends to taste for us "like sighing, like pay day, like getting a seat on the tube". Thirsty was devised by friends Jemma McDonnell and Kylie Walsh, and is as much a study of their decade as pals as of Blue WKD binges. But under the laughs (plenty of them) were melancholy notes that lingered in my head as long as the catchy, closing blast of "Total Eclipse of the Heart".
After so much agenda theatre, it was a relief to plunge into a historical story, even if this was history with a distinctly modern tang. Young Pretender, at the Underbelly, told the 300-year-old story of Bonnie Prince Charlie, reimagining his failed attempt to seize the Scottish throne with contemporary dialogue, costumes from the skinny trouser rack at Topman, and a Libertines soundtrack. The script, by EV Crowe, was packed tight with goodies for those listening carefully (a great joke about lutes comes and goes in a beat), and I found Paul Woodson captivating as Charlie, a charmer and a tireless blusterer who betrays a growing panic, even as he repeats the mantra "Yes, me, now" to hearten himself for revolt.
Young Pretender capped a strong first few days at the fringe, full of treats ? but nothing in week one got to me quite like Translunar Paradise, a new show by Theatre Ad Infinitum, also at the Pleasance. I can't ever remember sitting in an auditorium, as I did here, genuinely panicked about the prospect of the house lights coming up, because of the state of my face. I was a wreck, first tears having come about 10 minutes in to this tale of elderly bereavement, my face a raw red mess after the hypnotic, raking hour was over.
It was entirely wordless, told instead through dance, mime and music. George Mann (also the director) and Deborah Pugh played young lovers, each equipped with a beautifully crafted mask that bore the face of an 80-year-old. These masks went on and off as the story shifted about in time, showing us, for instance, the couple's first meeting over cups of tea. And while the performers danced lithely as twentysomethings, then hobbled about as pensioners, musician Kim Heron floated between them, playing the accordion, singing, and serving as a sort of omniscient facilitator who nudged this story of a happy, lasting marriage towards its inevitable conclusion.
It was an extraordinary performance, intricate down to the aged pair's minutely shaking hands, the varied sound effects conjured by a simple squeezebox. As for the crying? I'm no great weeper, any tears shed at fringes past most likely those of boozy mirth in some dingy standup den; who knows what happened here. Maybe the jag was prompted by the overwhelming excitement of the fringe in its first week, when the fatigue and all the litter is yet to establish and everyone, across town, is optimistic about the month ahead. Maybe it was preemptive worry about the imminent dance marathon I was to contest later that night.
Really I suspect that Translunar Paradise so moved me (and plenty of others in the oft-sniffling audience) because of its uniquely devastating method, prompting thoughts about bereavement using only gesture, never cheapening its subject by attempting to describe the indescribable. It left me, perhaps for good, with the unbearably sad image of a long-married man requiring just one tea cup, when always there'd been two. Like him, I hobbled away speechless.