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Unlike many Edinburgh Fringe venues, which for 11 months of the year serve as church halls, student unions or pubs, the Traverse is a year-round theatre. It boasts a smaller programme of bigger-budget shows, often featuring more established names than at other Fringe venues. In recent years some of those venues have given the Traverse a run for its money. But, for now, “Scotland’s new writing theatre” is still the first stop for many punters seeking quality theatre at the Fringe.
A highlight is Al Smith’s Diary of a Madman, adapted from Gogol’s short story. The action is relocated to South Queensferry, a former fishing village in the shadow of the Forth Rail Bridge, now all but subsumed into Edinburgh’s suburbs. Pop Sheeran (Liam Brennan) is a bridge painter, like his father and grandfather before him. When Matthew White, a well-spoken material science grad from Surrey, is posted with the Sheeran family for the summer to test a new paint, he gets short shrift from Pop (“You’re here for the paint job and your name’s Matt White?”). But the new arrival opens old sores, and what at first seems a play about nationalism becomes one about masculinity and mental health, tradition and generational rift.
Smith is a sharp writer with an ear for Scots inflection and teenage banter — brought to life by Louise McMenemy as Pop’s teenage daughter and Lois Chimimba as her lippy friend. But the most poignant performance is from Deborah Arnott as Pop’s wife, painfully alive to the hurt around her, quietly trying to hold things together.
She might almost be a character in Milk, Ross Dunsmore’s new tear-jerker about love and care giving. Three couples — one elderly, one teenage, one on the brink of parenthood — occupy three distinct worlds within the same city. But the set design tells us they will collide sooner or later: the old couple’s battered armchairs share the stage with the chrome kitchen of the middle class parents-to-be. And in Orla O’Loughlin’s production the actors never leave the stage, silently witnessing each other’s stories.
Milk is a metaphor for nourishment. For Nicole, it’s the struggle to breastfeed; for old May, it’s worry over her husband’s appetite. If he won’t eat she will have to inject him with food: “Pint of milk straight to the heart.” Dunmore’s play is a humane and funny look at what we want and what we need — which is, sometimes, simply to care for someone.
“Dem never gon pick us,” says one of the women in Adura Onashile’s Expensive Shit. She is about to dance for the men of the Kalakuta Republic, home of the musician Fela Kuti, which he declared independent from Nigeria in the 1970s. In the toilets the women practise their routines, hoping they’ll be picked for Kuti’s band. One of them is scared; she’s “on the timetable” to sleep with him that night. “We be free as long as we remember the rules,” another explains.
Cut to the women’s toilets in a Glasgow nightclub, where a Nigerian attendant is dispensing paper towels and make-up advice. But what is she hiding? Here, as in Kalakuta, sex rarely equals power for women. This is a well-acted piece, but feels sketched-out — and an improbable twist reduces its impact.
If Expensive Shit asks what women want, Matthew Wilkinson’s tough two-hander, My Eyes Went Dark, raises questions about masculinity. Nikolai has lost his family in a terrible accident — but who will pay for it? Cal MacAninch, as Nikolai, is a man broken by grief and fuelled by vengeance; Thusitha Jayasundera, playing everyone from his dead son’s friend to his psychiatrist, is superb. Yet the play feels longer than its 90 minutes, the plot sagging in the final third.
Greater Belfast is billed as a reluctant homecoming. Accompanied by a string quartet, writer-performer Matt Regan shifts in and out of song and in and out of verse as he reflects on home and history. He treads lightly at first, before digging down to an emotional core. The recurring image of the land, the Belfast “sleech”, is playfully undercut when he pours mud on his hands, explaining: “It’s just a conceit about landscape and memory. Sure, you’ve all read Seamus Heaney.” Not all the songs are winners, but Regan has a lovely stage presence, self-deprecating yet assured.
Comedian-activist Mark Thomas returns to the Traverse with The Red Shed, marking the 50th anniversary of the Wakefield Labour Club, which he has frequented since his student days. It’s a typically angry, funny show that tells of his attempt to piece together a day during the miners’ strike in 1984. Between the jokes it makes serious points about truth, in an age that ignores facts, and memory, when working class histories have been neglected. Thomas is preaching to the choir here — a luxury most Fringe shows don’t have — and he’s unlikely to convert any non-believers, but he remains an engaging, warm-hearted performer.
To August 28, traverse.co.uk