Fringe frolics

Our theatre blogger reports from Edinburgh.

On Friday, the Scotsman announced week one's winners of the "Fringe First" awards for new writing at the Edinburgh Festival. Of the six so-called "best of the fest', I was lucky enough to catch two: Beautiful Burnout at The Pleasance Forth, and Speechless at the Traverse. One might well argue that neither of these fairly mainstream pieces is reflective of the "spirito di Fringe", and that their credentials as marginalia are questionable. Burnout, for example, is a Frantic Assembly co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland. It has its own, unshared auditorium, a lavish set, by Fringe standards, and, moreover, all the economic punch of a major player.

However, in terms of sheer physical commitment, Bryony Lavery's play about a group of young Glasgow boxers chasing the big time is beyond reproach. Audience members are ringsiders to a sweaty spectacular from the performers, who at times abstract the boxing repertoire into stylised formations and dance, and at others jack up the realism to the point of terrifying brutality. The training and fight sequences transfer beautifully to dance form, as do the soft-shoed referees, nimble and cambered as they peer into the action.

The piece feeds greedily off the filmic: as well as a bank of video screens, we have a soundtrack courtesy of Underworld, whose electronic anthems are ever associated in the mind with the Weedgie radges of Trainspotting. A revolving stage swivels the actors around, mid-fight, as they go into slo-mo and freeze-frame, and we arrive at The Matrix. Even the trainer's name - Burgess - seems to slyly reference Meredith Burgess of Rocky fame.

The characters are instantly recognisable fighting types: there's your world-weary trainer (check!), then there's his protegé, your classic pasty ginger one (Ryan Fletcher), and his showboating tawny nemesis (Taqi Nazeer). More gratifyingly, the lads are matched, blow for blow, by a young lassie, Dina (Vicki Manderson). She inevitably loses her place in the boxing story, and as the pugilists punch each other's lights out, her role dwindles to that of sad showgirl with a broken heel. Her fate, and that of the brain-damaged boxer, may just serve the final "hold the front page - boxing is bad for you" point of the play, but we sure have fun getting to that point.

Speechless, scripted by Polly Teale and Linda Brogan, and presented by Shared Experience with Sherman Cymru, is inspired by the real-life story of June and Jennifer Gibbons. The electively mute twins of West Indian parentage achieved a certain notoriety for their incarceration in Broadmoor after a steady withdrawal from the outside world. The show reveals the two youngsters as impossibly enmeshed. June (Demi Oyediran) and Jennifer (Natasha Gordon) move with synchronised but leaden grace, their every movement loaded with pain; they fight like wildcats but cannot function independently. They will always be "the Twinnies".

The play skirts the issue of the twins' private idiom, their dialect of two, and we understand them perfectly (when they are alone) as articulate girls, with writerly aspirations - girls whose imaginations are constantly at play over the grounds of early eighties popular culture: Top of the Pops, The Generation Game, Tupperware parties. And nothing is as fascinating for them as the Royal Family: the details of the Windsor frocks, the Royal colours of mint, lime and canary yellow, are repeatedly trawled over. It's the fascination and fierce loyalty of the outsider looking in. This is not simply a tale of spooky twins - the girls' race further marks and alienates them in uneasy post-colonial times.

The piece makes compelling use of archive recordings, and voice-overs of the twins' actual writings, and these auditory documents spool out unsettlingly. To an 'I heart 1981" soundtrack of the Brixton riots on the one hand and the nuptials of Charles and Di on the other, June and Jennifer become enamoured of a misfit American boy, the ironically-named Kennedy. Almost as removed from the British mainstream as the twins, he, however, expresses his own alienation with foul-mouthed nihilism. As Lady Di emerges on TV in her crumpled white winding sheets ("ten, maybe twelve pearl button on the cuff!") the twins have sex of dubious consensuality with the dissolute Kennedy, and the news of his imminent departure for the Land of the Free seals their fate - and their lips - for good.

Just as it pulls the twins' lives out of kilter, so does Kennedy's arrival buckle the play's shape. It remains, however, a gorgeously acted, insightful piece - as well as a chronicle of Eighties' camp.

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge