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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear