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Stage struck at the Edinburgh Fringe

Matt Trueman reviews an Edinburgh Fringe full of fighting talk.

In Edinburgh, the how can sometimes overshadow the what. Fringe audiences are won over by artistry, more than they are by art. After all, if you’ve got something urgent to say, the middle of the world’s most crowded art’s festival is hardly the most effective platform. This year, however – even if it’s too early to spot the recurring themes – the Fringe seems to be full of fighting talk.

Even those Belgian provocateurs Ontroerend Goed, usually more interested in affronting their audiences, have turned their gaze outwards. In All That Is Wrong (Traverse, times vary) 18-year-old Koba Ryckewaert chalks up a mind-map of the world’s ills on a huge blackboard. Homophobia and insomnia. Multinationals and baldness. Little Miss America. Sex sits by pain. Religion is hooked on to war. Right in the centre, there’s the letter “I”.

Starting with personal concerns – introversion, divorced parents – she works outwards to the big unsolvables. That initial I seems smaller and smaller, increasingly entangled. She calls to mind a mathematician cooking up a theory or a homicide detective connecting clues. Or a new-minted adult, indignant and idealistic, trying to work out her place in a world of age-old problems. Scales fall from her eyes. The need for solutions softens, even if the umbrage remains. True, as an extension of verbatim theatre, with subject onstage, the quotation marks limit the scope but this is a quietly resonant sideways slant on the coming-of-age story.

Caroline Horton’s Mess (Traverse, times vary) is another. Josephine, much the same age as Ryckewaert, finds the world just as problematic. She copes by rigidly controlling the way she eats. There are charts, comfortingly colour-coded, and calorific calculations. Trips to the Boots weighing machine are a treat. Laxatives and blackouts less so.

Mess is a kids’ show. For adults. About anorexia. The candyfloss and fairy lights aesthetic rubs against the subject matter brilliantly, as it manages to show the world as Josephine sees it. It feels light-headed and giddy. You can’t see the protruding bones that cause her boyfriend to flinch but you know they’re there. The realities of the illness, when they come, are casually mentioned, rather than gorily detailed. Acid reflux? No biggie. Horton doesn’t try to shock us into action, she tries to make us understand and empathise. Anorexia isn’t about vanity. It isn’t a choice. It’s a compulsion. The only way for some people to cope. “It makes you feel invincible,” says Josephine. It’s the sort of insight – pinpoint and counterintuitive – that could only come from experience. Even if it ends by having it both ways – realist and feel-good – Mess’s bravery comes from its level-headed, even-handed candour. The appeal comes from the opposition of form and content.

That’s exactly what Look Left, Look Right’s Nola (Underbelly, 15.30) is lacking. Verbatim theatre so often does, deeming real-world import enough to dispense with theatricality. Shows like London Road and DV8’s Can We Talk About This, both at the National Theatre this year, prove the possibilities and leave conveyor belts of talking heads such as this enquiry into the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill  looking dully po-faced.

Verbatim theatre needs a strong argument that still reflects both sides. Nola establishes culpability – improper safety procedures and a clean-up operation that mostly saved face – and lays its charges. Toxic dispersants – “the cheap and dirty way to deal with an oil spill”, according to the marine toxologist Susan Shaw – were used to break up a million barrels worth of crude oil. Doctors cite recurrent symptoms. Local fishermen explain their stalled businesses and lack of compensation. The media focus on black-stained birds. Yet, there’s a lack of concrete statistics and key voices are missing: politicians and, apart from one anonymous employee, BP itself. They were Nola’s villains from the start and the omission betrays its purposes.

Speaking of which, Nick Clegg bears the brunt of Coalition (Pleasance Dome, 2pm). Thom Tuck plays Lib-Dem leader and deputy PM Matt Cooper in the final year of the coalition’s term. It’s all gone, well, a bit wrong really. He’s gone from messiah to pariah in four years. Backbenchers are threatening defection, his energy secretary has resigned over new nuclear power policies, triggering a by-election, and public perception considers him a “yellow amoeba”. Unsurprisingly, the Tory chief whip – Phill Jupitus drolly blending the Cheshire Cat and Mephistopheles – is circling overhead.

It’s entertaining enough, but Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s satire hops episodically from crisis to crisis, where it needs to stack them high. A Lib-Dem TV debate training camp is the highlight but after a while Tuck’s tantruming has nowhere else to go. Just like Clegg’s Lib-Dems, Coalition overreaches itself; more surface than substance.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism