How To Be Amazingly Happy /Vessel/Passionate Machine, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Susan Brett reviews a selection of shows from Edinburgh Festival Fringe

How To Be Amazingly Happy 3-stars1

The new one-woman show from Lawrence Batley Theatre Director Victoria Firth, How To Be Amazingly Happy, debuted at the Pleasance Courtyard at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

How To Be Amazingly Happy is the story of one woman’s journey of self-discovery. Victoria is searching for something to give her joy in the wake of her life’s plans falling through. The elephant in the room is that Victoria can’t have children, and rounds upon rounds of failed IVF treatments have taken their toll on her mental health. Written and performed by Firth, this one-hour show is an intimate look at gender, loss and what it means to move on.

First off: the title is definitely a misnomer – this is not a show that will make one amazingly happy. It is, however, thought provoking, and interestingly structured. We journey with Victoria through her various attempts at making herself happy. She tries running. She tries tap-dancing. She tries becoming a clown. She considers getting a dog. She joins a cabaret show. She becomes a baker. As we watch Victoria gain these new experiences, we learn more of her background through recordings of her voice in voiceover. The juxtaposition of Victoria’s upbeat, funny stage presence and the dark, vulnerable voiceover at costume changes is striking.

Victoria is a capable performer, embodying positivity in the wake of trauma. Her enthusiasm keeps the audience’s attention despite a stage littered with curiosities. There are a number of red boxes and a hanging red dress behind her, all of which become important at different points. The boxes contain her props and costumes, and costume changes take place on stage in full view. The freedom with which Victoria strips on stage, showing the audience the body of a forty-year-old woman, is refreshing. Of all the struggles Victoria faces in How To Be Amazingly Happy, none of these are body-related and this should be celebrated.

The whole show feels like an experiment, which pays varying dividends. One highlight is Victoria’s IVF-themed cabaret show, where she performs with jars of donor sperm and two syringes. One can guess how that one goes – but it is fun and fascinating way to portray IVF on stage. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s audience participation in a song about puppies that I didn’t really understand.

While there are a lot of interesting ideas in How To Be Amazingly Happy, and some thoughts will linger for hours after, the show as a whole feels half-cooked. I wasn’t entirely sure what the meaning was – or what Victoria’s final outcome was. If I’m supposed to feel inspired to try new things, I’m not. This is thought-provoking theatre making with a lot of strong ideas, but I’m not sure they all meshed together as well as they could. It is clear, however, a lot of love went into this show. It just needs a finer polish before it blossoms into what it is capable of achieving and saying.

Vessel 

4-out-of-5-stars-rating

Vessel, a new play centred on abortion in Ireland and written and performed by Laura Wyatt O’Keeffe, is a highlight of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe programme.

Vessel tells the story of Maia, a receptionist at a refugee support centre in Ireland where a woman has taken her own life after being refused an abortion. Maia, too, is pregnant and wants an abortion. Inspired to take a stand, Maia takes to social media and launches a court case to demand a legal abortion – attracting the attention of journalist David, who wants to cover her story.

This is a very timely new play. In May, Ireland voted to legalise abortion in a landslide referendum. This was a vote that came too late for many women, such as Maia, forced to fork out money for a journey across to Britain to have the procedure. Vessel discusses a woman’s ability to decide what she wants for her own body, societal stigma and the powerful impact of social media. Though the referendum is over, these subjects will undoubtedly remain key talking points for years to come, making Vessel a powerful and relevant piece of theatre.

Vessel’s success comes largely from being unashamed in its writing and performance. It tackles tough questions. It discusses the circumstances surrounding pregnancy. It considers the church, and familial rejection over her choice to have an abortion. It explores the backlash and vitriol that social media creates. It is refreshingly honest in its storytelling, delving into uncomfortable details more than once. There is no sugar-coating here, from the first moment where Maia and Edward meet at a funeral to the unsettling final moments where Maia has her abortion. It is clever, hard-hitting and effective.

At the heart of Vessel is an interesting pair of characters. A working-class female receptionist at a refugee shelter and a middle-class male journalist have little in common. Indeed, Maia and Edward have different worldviews; different understandings of the prejudice facing women and different experiences with pregnancy and childlessness. Their contrasting beliefs and experiences work unexpectedly well in combination, and their surprise friendship is touching. In just the space of an hour, they go from opposition to something resembling friendship and trust. It is beautiful character development.

Laura Wyatt O’Keeffe shines in the role of Maia, a character that is clearly very important to her. Her performance feels as raw as the text she has written, full of both vulnerability and inner strength. Meanwhile, Edward Degaetano is a capable scene partner, instilling balance and calm where Maia is desperate and strong-willed. He has a gentle but commanding stage presence about him, working well against O’Keeffe.

The set is minimal, with two chairs the bulk of the props. Nothing more proves necessary, and might even render a distraction, given the content of the script and dialogue is so meaty it more than makes up for a lack of visual stimuli. The one complaint I had was that it was not longer. By the time Vessel was over, I was wondering how the time had passed so quickly.

Vessel is a timely play and a remarkable achievement. It is hard-hitting, well structured and thought provoking. It says a lot in a short space of time, and is just begging for further development. It speaks honestly about something that needs to be talked about, making it exactly the kind of play we need in 2018.

Passionate Machine 

3-5-stars

Rosy Carrick’s one-woman science fiction extravaganza, Passionate Machine, debuted this Edinburgh Fringe at Zoo Charteris.

Passionate Machine tells the story of Rosy, a woman obsessed with time travel and Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who becomes embroiled in a multi-universe mission to save her future self. Filled with enough science-fiction theories, references and in-jokes to please even the most hardcore nerds, Passionate Machine is a hidden gem of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Science fiction relies on its grounding in reality. A good science-fiction story could be happening in the present day, and true to form, Passionate Machine does not disappoint. Carrick incorporates elements of her own life with fantasy to create a seamless blend of fiction and reality, wherein I have no idea where the line is. It uses real names, including David Bowie, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Rocky Balboa, real places, real articles and even what look like real hangover photos, adding depth to a story that is already smart and immersive.

The build to an incredibly satisfying conclusion is steady. There is a point where suddenly everything makes perfect sense and one is struck by how brilliant the interweaving narrative is. I won’t say any more for risk of spoiling what is great climax, but I would say hang on to every word – there’s some fantastic foreshadowing in there. This is a genre that is difficult to master for even the most senior writers, but Passionate Machine is a fine example of the conventions of time-travel storytelling. It leaves clues littered throughout the narrative, interlaces separate plot lines and characters together and brings everything together for a moment of clarity unlike much I have experienced watching theatre. There is a wonderful payoff here.

Rosy Carrick is an excellent performer. Even in a science fiction show, her ability to convey emotion is powerful in how natural she is. Her eyes shine with tears at one moment of grief, while in another she is furious at an injustice she faces. She tells a great story, setting a consistent and balanced tone throughout, building curiosity and unveiling herself to the audience step by step. Passionate Machine was a little light on audience laughter, although most of the humour comes from joking sci-fi references, which I suspect not all audiences will get but remain an absolute treat for those who do.

The use of tech at Zoo Charteris must be commended. Carrick uses projection and sound throughout to create a multimedia-oriented show with photos, newspaper clippings, letters from all generations and emails – adding a new level of immersion to her monologue. There are also some fantastic montages throughout to convey travelling or time passing, with one highlight being Carrick’s journey from Brighton to Edinburgh.

Passionate Machine is a very clever play with an immensely satisfying payoff, though it may build too slowly for some audiences. Although the story is told well, it may be difficult for some to grasp the conclusion without paying attention throughout – and it’s a little light on the general humour. However, despite what might be a limited potential audience – it is a remarkable achievement. For science fiction aficionados, this is a must see – an absolute gem of Fringe theatre. It is funny, smart and frankly better than a lot of the time-travel stories we already know.

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