Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Death Song" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

You Need Me should seriously consider if the Fringe is the best way to showcase their work. For any theatre company bringing a show to Edinburgh there will inevitably be compromises that have to be made due to the performance space and tight running time. And You Need Me's shows are so lovingly crafted that it's distressing to see the finished product with metaphorical corners knocked off or chips to the paintwork. This is a beautiful piece of theatre, and it has the potential to be much more. In many respects it is simply too good for the Fringe.

In what has to be one of Edinburgh's smallest performance spaces (the usual 'toilet' and 'car' based shows excepted) the show shoehorns in a cast of five, a cellist and sound equipment. Although the cast are rarely (if ever) all on stage simultaneously, it only takes three to make things look cluttered - and in a show with such a focus on movement and physicality, anything affecting its aesthetics is unfortunate.

The difficulties created by the restricted space are mitigated by having the cast spill into and through the audience at times, and for those who watch them, it creates some wonderfully unexpected moments. But on looking round, it was clear that most of the audience continued to stare straight ahead at the stage - we suggest sitting at least half way up the raked seating as you'll then be able to view the scenes that spill up the aisle and at the rear without craning your neck too badly.

The strict 'timeslot' also impacts on a show that feels somewhat curtailed - with a final reveal that seems more suited as a turning point in a longer show. And there is certainly the scope to build on the material here - indeed as it stands we are deprived of what could be one of the story's most powerful moments. We'll avoid talking about the plot here as its incremental storytelling could easily be spoiled by knowing too much in advance - and we'd urge caution when reading reviews elsewhere.

The ensemble cast give carefully constructed performances - Heriberto Montalban strikes the perfect note of helplessness and frustration during Juan's prison scenes with the underused Rosamond Martin's sympathetic teacher. Roger Ribo makes his character's interest in Juan's daughter Paulina suitably uncomfortable to watch, while the portrayal of the developing relationship between Paulina (Miren Alcala) and Juan's new girlfriend (Fran Moulds) is particularly touching. The cast's clever use of self-generated sound effects add a nice element to Greg Hall's musical accompaniment without becoming a distraction.

This isn't a show for everyone - its complex chronological structure demands effort from an audience, and it won't meet the 'fun night out' criteria of many casual Fringe-goers. However, for those who like their theatre to be artistic and intelligent, but with an honesty and simplicity that lacks pretension, I doubt there are many shows they will find as rewarding as Death Song. And despite my original comment about You Need Me needing to find better ways to present their work, if they keep coming to the Fringe, we'll definitely keep buying tickets.

Death Song runs at Udderbelly's Pasture until 28th August (not 15th)
Image used with permission