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Edinburgh Fringe - A 72-hour Taster

Part One

“As the mother of a brown boy...” by Chickenshed
“Morceaux Choisis”, “Ragnarök” by X Factor Dance Company
“Druthers” by Precarious
“Binari” by Dulsori, Old College Quad

by Stuart Sweeney

August 5-6, 2007 -- Zoo Southside (first three) and Old College Quad (last), Edinburgh, Scotland

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is upon us, with thousands of events in 300 venues – phew! The word “fringe” conjures up an image of something on the periphery – marginal, second division. But I can understand the sentiments of a number of people who told me that the Fringe is now the primary festival in Edinburgh, with a breadth of high quality work that the Edinburgh Festival (the posh bit) will find hard to rival, especially in the field of innovation. Certainly my three day taster supported that view.

Before reviewing “As the mother of a brown boy...” by integrated company, Chickenshed, I must declare that I am a Friend of the company and recently chaired a panel discussion inspired by this production in their home theatre in London. Nevertheless, I am not writing as a Friend when I say that this is an excellent example of dance/music theatre that combines strong theatrical craft with heartfelt emotion. Two years ago, many were impressed by “Globaleyes”, their take on a range of world issues; but in addressing another serious, topical theme, the sharper focus of the new work makes for an even more intense theatrical presentation.

The story tells of the tragic death of Nisha Niering, a 19-year old mixed race youth, once a member of Chickenshed, who was accidentally killed by police as he sped away from a robbery. The dance, created by the cast and pulled together by Director Christine Nearing, contrasts high octane street moves with beautiful, sad sections and a deeply-felt duet for the boy reunited with his Father in the year before his death. Hollow, white blocks are stacked, thrown, danced around and through to help ensure that our attention never wavers. Together with strong tunes by David Carey and imaginative designs with innovative video projection by Gordon Hollick, the show is a roller coaster ride for the senses.

Above all, the sincerity of the cast shines out and joint Director Joseph Morton has nurtured fine performances from all the company, climaxing in an emotionally charged ending with a power we rarely see on the UK stage. Some have criticised the perspective as one-sided, but for me it is valid to give the Mother's account, as the title suggests, and accept or question aspects of her view. In this role, Belinda McQuirk is on stage for most of the 1-hour length and is the glue holding the production together, ranging from loving elation at her beautiful boy, to despair and finally determination to treasure her 19 years of memories of her son. As Nisha, Loren Jacobs, moves with panther-like grace, ably supported by Gavin May and Robin Shillinglaw as fellow crew members and Natsai Gurupira extracts much sensuality from her big number, “Brown Skin”. It won't be easy to follow the success of this show, but I look forward eagerly to Chickenshed's future offerings.

X Factor Dance company provided a first time treat for me with two, twenty-five minute works of polished, elegant contemporary dance with few frills to distract from the pure movement on display. Philip Decouflé has a high reputation for his witty choreography and his “Morceaux Choisis” didn't disappoint with a series of delectable vignettes with intriguing steps admirably performed. One of my favourite male dancers, David Hughes, was particularly adept at creating sensuous shapes and Alan Lambie's power and precision showed why he is one of the leading young dancers in the UK. The final vignette introduced a screen with back projection, with dancers in front and behind, and while this has been tried before, Decouflé managed to find new ways to weave magic from the ingredients, deceiving us with shadow images that weren't what they seem and towering figures dwarfing their colleagues.

The second work, “Ragnarök”, by Artistic Director Alan Greig, took inspiration from Viking legends, creating a very different atmosphere from the first half. In dark orange shorts and t-shirts we see stylised conflicts and unions, although love always seemed to lead to disappointment. At the end, two figures try again to find a way forward, while their companions stand isolated around the stage. With choreography and performances of this standard, X Factor deserved a larger audience on the day I saw them. Nevertheless, those who did come were clearly delighted with the offering.

Promising “An exquisite concoction of stunning visuals, vibrant movement, poetic text, spectacular digital effects and a pulsing sound scape...”, “Druthers” performed by Precarious, seemed an ideal way to kick off the Fringe on my first evening. Sadly, this production just didn't work for me, although the rest of the audience gave it an enthusiastic response at the close.

In this story of a recluse, eventually persuaded to break his bonds and venture out into the world, the biggest problem was the “poetic text”, declaimed for a significant part of the 70 minutes running time. Taking gobbets of Shakespeare out of context made for an indigestible stew of archaic English, which left me looking at my watch at increasingly frequent intervals.

The intriguing set, comprising suitcases, an isolated door and other items of eccentric furniture, created a surreal platform for the video projection sections, but the deliberately awkward dance movement never caught fire, despite the best efforts of the cast. One performer played virtually all the production in a gas mask and I was concerned for the artist. While one cast member told me that it was to help describe a woman, frightened to reveal herself and eventually throwing off her inhibitions, another admitted how hot it was under the mask and that a copious supply of water had to be on hand backstage: in my view the artist deserves more consideration. No information about those involved was available on the press handout.

Although included in the dance and physical theatre section of the programme, “Binari” by South Korean drumming group, Delsori, featured little dance. The skill of the musicians was never in doubt and attempts were made to vary the basic drumming fare in an audience friendly format. However, the amplified sound bouncing around an open air quadrangle of stone buildings made for a muddy sound and the popular songs suffered in particular. If you've never experienced an Asian drumming spectacular, it's perhaps worth trying, but Japanese groups such as Kodo impressed me far more.

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