Sonya Kelly in 'How to Keep an Alien' at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
Sonya Kelly in 'How to Keep an Alien' at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic © Mihaela Bodlovic

The Traverse isn’t the only place to find good theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe — Summerhall and the Pleasance also have impressive records — but Scotland’s premiere theatre for new writing is usually a good place to start, and this year is no exception.

The Fringe is known for its one-man shows and the Traverse boasts some of the best. A highlight is A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, Annie Ryan’s adaptation of Eimear McBride’s award-winning novel, first seen at the Dublin Theatre Festival last year. It’s the story of a girl from the womb (a safe place of “secret pressed hello’s”) to beaten, broken adulthood, told in her own elliptical language. “I look him back from looking right at me,” she thinks as her uncle eyes her. And “It’s an awful lot of sore”, after he’s forced her into intercourse for the first time. So twisted are the events they need a twisted, splintered language to tell them. Aoife Duffin is mesmerising, switching between characters with just a subtle shift of weight or a lowered gaze. There is only one person on stage but we see them all, their prejudices and shameful desires visited on the girl.

Andy Duffy’s one-hander Crash aims at a similar confessional intensity. A trader relates the car crash in which his wife died. Since then, he has met someone else, a woman into meditation and tai-chi. He is good at his job, he says, but struggles to raise enough capital when he sets out alone. Jamie Michie’s performance is spot-on, shifting uncomfortably in his three-piece suit, and the writing is appropriately terse. But the play feels directionless and the audience unmoved.

Writer-performer Gary McNair charmed audiences last year with a tender coming of age fable. He returns to the Traverse with an equally winning piece — funny, observant, poignant — about a boy and his grandfather. The gambler in A Gambler’s Guide to Dying is a grandfather who, when diagnosed with terminal cancer, bets his life savings on outliving his doctors’ predictions. McNair’s acting style is guileless, almost gauche, but don’t be fooled, he has pinpoint comic precision.

However, the award for most laughs goes to Irish writer-performer Sonya Kelly, whose madcap autobiographical love story How to Keep an Alien is already generating buzz. Kelly met her Australian girlfriend Kate shortly before she was to be deported from Ireland. It was love at first sight, but the months that followed were filled with the unromantic business of proving their relationship to the National Immigration Bureau. Life, as Kelly says, “is not a movie, it’s an underestimated gas bill”. This is a quirky piece, full of lovely surreal detail and laugh-out-loud wit.

One of the hottest tickets is real-life couple Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn’s Fake It ’Til You Make It, a hilarious, tear-jerking show about male mental health. Kimmings is a performance artist known for her taboo-smashing approach to theatre; Grayburn works in advertising. Six months into their relationship, she discovered he had secretly battled clinical depression for years. The show tells the couple’s journey from then until now, through recovery and relapse, with candid interviews, song, dance and costume (Grayburn wears a variety of headgear until poignantly revealing his face). Kimmings is brazen and gentle by turns; Grayburn is no actor, but this makes it all the more moving. His quiet closing song leaves the audience weeping in the dark.

Mental health is also the subject of Stef Smith’s play Swallow, which maps the interwoven lives of three women at various stages of breakdown. Anna (Emily Wachter) hasn’t left her flat in “nearly two Christmases”, Rebecca (Anita Vettesse) is unravelling after a divorce, and Sam (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is contemplating becoming a man. Sharing the stage, their monologues are cleverly intercut, as if their identities are porous. Smith’s writing is sharp and Orla O’Loughlin’s direction slick, but there are moments when the piece loses it way.

Lucas Hnath’s The Christians takes a while to get going but serves up some knotty ideas about faith and absolutism. Somewhere in middle America, Pastor Paul’s church is thriving, but when he delivers a controversial sermon on the non-existence of Hell, that begins to change. The production boasts a community choir and captivating performances from William Gaminara as Pastor Paul and Jaye Griffiths as his conflicted wife.

Experimental theatre maker Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree is given a 10-year anniversary production. In this clever deconstruction theatrical of convention, Crouch plays both himself and a smarmy hypnotist with a sharp edge. In the performance I attended, he invited Aoife Duffin (star of A Girl, above) to play the father of a girl recently killed by the hypnotist in a car accident. The actor playing the father is different in every performance and always unrehearsed, Crouch feeding him or her lines and stage directions. It lays bare the artifice of theatre — a piano stool is an oak tree if he says it is — without denying its imaginative power.

To August 30,

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