Komedia Roman Eagle Lodge, Edinburgh

Nicole Harford plays schoolgirl Katie, determined to gain the affections of the awkward Tom. Writer Pip Nixon handles their shy, unsure fumblings with humour and sensitivity. But Katie’s brother Liam played by the convincingly creepy Justin Palmer has an unhealthy interest in his younger sister.

He is ‘seduced by the instincts most of us manage to ignore’. Liam and his brother have custody of their younger sister but neither seems sure of her age. They also have an unsettling interest in each other’s rather troubled nocturnal activities. But perhaps they are not related at all. After all, they don’t look alike.

Nixon’s achievement is to sow the seeds of uncertainty in the audience’s mind. That the idea takes root at all suggests she is not dealing with barren ground here. The brutal torture and eventual murder of Victoria Climbie wasn’t regarded as the rare though preventable horror it was. Instead the little girl confirmed the already widely held suspicion that familial relations are not all that they seem. This play isn’t just about an abusive relationship. It is about the distorted intimacies that can potentially poison family life, any family life.

Engrossing theatre, but with a perverse view of what goes on behind closed doors. See it but don’t believe it!

Delicates and Smoke

Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh

The writer, Rebecca Russell, seems to be saying something rather disturbing with these two monologues.

Moira (played by Russell) is a single mother with a stack of ironing to do to make ends meet. She exhibits the familiar anxieties about her health, her children and, in turn, the health of her children. However, she turns out to be more than just another of the ‘worried well’.

An arsonist fireman – intriguing – longs for the heroic afterglow of 9/11. But his health & safety advice turns out to be rather sinister.

Are these psychological case studies or an insight into how otherwise ordinary people lose the plot (so to speak)? In the case of ‘Delicates’ for instance, the programme makes reference to the Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy controversy; and on ‘Smoke’, the blurb speculates on what makes a serial killer.

The link – other than the laundry destined for Moira’s ironing board, but instead stoking the inferno of the second piece – seems to be that murder lurks in the dark heart of ordinary life. These pieces come dangerously close to giving credence to the dubious and already clichéd slippery slope argument. Despite, or perhaps because of, this, the writing and the performances are compelling and rather believable.

Getting On

Sweet on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe

This Alan Bennett play, first performed in 1971, is a rather inconsequential piece of theatre, or at least that was the impression I got from this version of it. Apparently Spy In The Blue Dress Productions formed specifically to put on this play. But one has to ask why.

It is about a jaded and cynical minor MP, his young wife with a eye on the handyman, and a politician friend haunted by the possible disclosure of an indiscretion in a public toilet. Sam Masters, in the lead role, carries much of the performance through sheer presence more than anything else. He is somewhere between the bumbling wordiness of a Boris Johnson – not least when he mumbles and stumbles over his lines – and the grumpy if affecting discontent of Tony Hancock’s Half Hour.

Which brings me to my second point. It is too long. Apparently Bennett himself is of the opinion that the text needs editing. Ironically, or perhaps deliberately, the verboseness and rambling of the MP becomes too much for his wife. She accuses him of reducing everything to words, becoming himself a ‘figure of speech’. No doubt there was some profound significance in this particular utterance but it was lost on me.

As you’d expect, Bennett’s affection for this characters, and the attention to the details of what are otherwise banal lives, is there. The moments when you hear something of the poignancy and touching humour of the Talking Heads, however, are few and far between. The threads of the piece are never really pulled together and it is hard to fathom why we are supposed to be interested in the characters’ rather pathetic private lives in the first place.

Dazed and Abused

Sweet on the Grassmarket, Edinburgh Fringe

On leaving the theatre, I was determined to write something to the effect that the acting was horrendous, and that I found it impossible to sympathise with any of the rather shallow caricatures of a young and monied elite. Until I realised that they – and the writer Kinvara Balfour (a kind of Tara Palmer Tomkinson character, only less cerebral) – were actually playing themselves.

My initial confusion over whether the sujects or the writing was self-indulgent, cliched and pointless was thus resolved. The answer is both. There may perhaps have been a sitcom in the making here, a kind of Men Behaving Badly for those who have it all – the coke habit, ‘adultescent’ outlook and aversion to commitment, that is. But that would still require evidence of some talent from those involved. A psychiatrist – who really did look like he was acting, and badly – opened the whole farce. At the end when the misogynist and the suicidal friend of the woman he is supposedly dating look like falling in love, the good doctor intervenes because falling in love is not in the script.

It is not only the ultimate in theatre as therapy, but is also remarkably self-loathing when you consider the kind of advantages these extremely unlikeable characters supposedly have in life. Their descent inot psychobabble really isn’t very funny to watch. I’d rather they kept it to themselves. What on paper might have seemed intriguing in reality is – for this critic at least – the first dud of this year’s Fringe.

Commuting: The life sentence?

The one aspect of the daily grind that is guaranteed to provoke an opinion is the commute to work. Congested roads, overcrowded trains, packed buses and sweaty tubes – it’s been said that if travel broadens the mind, commuting shrinks it back.

According to a recent report by the Rail Passengers Council, we are in ‘despair’, as one in four of London’s commuter trains fails to arrive on time. Trade unions criticise bosses for stressing out their employees by expecting them to commute too much. Some go further, linking what might otherwise be regarded as a relatively innocuous activity with high blood pressure, heart disease and blood clots in the leg.

Few would contest that the UK’s transport infrastructure is in a sorry state. But if the commuting experience is really so bad, why do so many of us continue to do it? This was the topic of discussion at the recent debate organised by the London-based Transport Research Group. (1)

David Young, project coordinator at Sustrans South-East, was keen to trumpet the virtues of cycling in the fight against obesity. This proved topical given the publication, the following week, of the House of Commons Health Committee report on the issue, with strategies to reduce people’s reliance on transport featuring prominently in its recommendations.

Continuing the theme of millennial moral panics, Nicky Gavron, deputy mayor of London, highlighted the issue of congestion. If we all worked from home, she suggested, there would be 20 per cent less traffic on the roads. However, co-panellist Timandra Harkness longed ‘for the two separate worlds’ of home and work that she has otherwise denied herself as a freelance journalist. As Gavron acknowledged, for many of us the daily commute is the price we are willing to pay for the dynamism of city life.

The ideal of mass mobility and the more familiar reality of congested commuting are arguably the essence of bustling cities. A member of the audience argued that we might even welcome the opportunity for quiet reflection that stalling commuter routes offer up, if admittedly by default. The RAC Foundation has discovered, to its evident horror, that even if our journeys were to double in duration ‘we’d just shrug and leave more time’ (2). So why has the act of getting to work become such a major cause for concern now, despite our reluctance to avoid commuting in practice?

Commuting today is an experience we share in common, not restricted to the ‘pinstripe suits’ of old. In his quirky The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton describes how we take our troubled selves with us when we travel. This, I think, can only be intensified in the routine journeying of the jaded commuter.  As well as ourselves though, we carry around with us the broader anxieties and frustrations of our times.

So it is striking how the discussion of the (im-) mobile metropolis tends to focus on the despairing angst-ridden commuter as much as infrastructural failure. The debate about commuting tends to become a metaphor for concerns that our working lives lack definition; and the sense that the commuter routes are falling apart as well only reinforces this sense of disengagement and confusion.

Consequently, as Austin Williams, chairing the debate, said, ‘transport is rarely discussed in its own terms’. For Tony Grayling, associate director (Sustainability) at the Institute for Public Policy Research, it is no longer about ‘trains, planes and automobiles’. Far from being a practical issue that needs addressing, transport has become an area through which a whole range of moral and political prejudices are aired. 

The policy response, in this context, makes more sense. Grayling went on to explain how he was interested in minimising the environmental and social costs of travel, and what he described as the undermining of ‘communities of place’. The deputy mayor was unapologetically intent on ‘reducing the need to travel’ altogether in the name of creating her ‘liveable city’. It seems that what might once have been regarded as a parochial, even eccentric contribution to the policy discussion has come to dominate both the transport agenda and the curiously pedestrian thinking on all things urban.

Indeed such tangential considerations as those posed by Grayling, Gavron and Young alike, are celebrated for their very joined-up-ness. Instead of dreaming up better ways of getting us from A to B, politicians and policy makers alike are increasingly concerned with engineering their particular take on society. Addressing everything from the environment, public health, and social inequality, to the work-life balance, community-building and civic engagement – it’s hardly surprising we’ve come to a stand-still.

(1) Commuting: the life sentence?

(2) UK Commute ‘longest in Europe’, BBC News, 22 July, 2003