Paines Plough returns to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019 with a series of new shows in the Roundabout at Summerhall. Daniel Perks spends a day in the round to soak up the atmosphere:

How far are we willing to go to fight for that which we treasure most?

Our freedom, our child, our partner or friends.

And how do we respond when the outcomes are outside of our control?

The Paines Plough season at the Roundabout doesn’t necessarily have the answers, but it’s sure as hell unafraid to ask the questions in its Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019 season.

Paines Plough Roundabout Summerhall
Lula Mebrahtu, Isabel Oliver & Michelle Tiwo (image courtesy of Jane Hobson)

The Parakeet trio (Lula Mebrahtu, Isabel Oliver and Michelle Tiwo) could never be said to shy from a challenge. In Boundless Theatre’s beautiful blend of spoken word and punk-youth anarchy, they bond together through their otherness and make a cause to save local wildlife from destruction. Because Gen Z do care. Because they are willing to stand up and fight.

Empathy is the new punk

The beauty in Brigitte Aphrodite’s Parakeet is that it involves a queer, young, black womxn, but this is not the centre of the story – it’s just a part of the character. People are more than their gender identities, racial backgrounds or sexual preferences.

There are elements of Parakeet that are messy. But that’s where its beauty lies – this show throws procedure out the window in favour of doing what feels right, feels ethical, feels like making a difference. And it’s a platonic story of three friends brought together through a mutual bond. Love doesn’t always have to be sexual or romantic.

Image courtesy of Paul Samuel White

If only our immigration system took a page from the Parakeet book and had some more flexibility. But as Tim Cowbury’s The Claim highlights, this is not the case.

Such a small difference between two words can mean deportation for Serge (Ery Nzaramba). We play the inner voices of those in suits (Nick Blakeley and Emmanuella Cole), one so afraid to make a mistake that he hides information and one so set on ticking boxes that she ignores any of the answers. We are the process, the protocol. We are the conscience of bureaucracy, passing judgement in a tiny room where Serge is detained.

The Claim is a show about the desire to stick to the letter of the law at any expense. We try and template an imperfect human nature – with honest mistakes and small slip-ups on both sides – onto a rigid framework that lacks layering or emotional motivation.

It also throws up the privilege that we enjoy in Britain, a first-world country with (at present) near-global access, and the extent to which take that for granted,

“You have passport?”

“Yes”

“You are lucky”

“No, I’m British”

The Claim’s dialogue is snappy, firing back and forth like a tennis match, one side desperate to hit a winner and the other just trying to stay in the game. There’s an inevitability in who will emerge victorious when one is out for blood, cloaking personal motivation in a guise of professional and moral duty.

Canary Crow Roundabout Summerhall
Daniel Ward (image courtesy of The Other Richard)

To another institution that deals with humans but not in humanity, The Canary And The Crow is a cry against injustice – this time at the classist education system that financially segregates and dismisses difference. Same uniform (for a sense of belonging), certain way of speaking (to teach correct grammar), same code of conduct (the rules are there to be followed). Daniel Ward challenges those rules and is met with hostility. And at 11 years old, one of the only black kids in a middle-class, elitist high school, he doesn’t realise that his behaviour is considered against the grain.

For all it tackles a deep-rooted racism, this piece of startling gig theatre by Middle Child is an uplifting and positive experience. Fusing spoken word, grime, hip-hop and classical music, it rises above the need to separate or categorise and shows how collaboration and friendship are far more powerful than unfounded phobias or ignorance. It meets adversity head-on, unafraid and determined to make a change.

Paines Plough Roundabout Summerhall
Laura Dalgleish (image courtesy of Kirsten McTernan)

From running towards something in the face of difficulty, to running away because of your fear at the outcome, How To Be Brave is a more muddled tale despite the best efforts of Laura Dalgleish to bring the narrative alive. Siân Owen’s central concept – in which a mother is cycling away so hard from the troubles in her life that she unconsciously overcomes past roadblocks – is lost amid passageways and turnings and tiny details that require us to work at a breakneck pace just to keep up.

But How To Be Brave approaches the concerns of motherhood with openness and honesty. Sometimes we run away because we are imperfect, we aren’t superheroes and we can’t fix everything. We let little anti-nostalgic mistakes affect our resilience, our bravery, our willingness to keep trying. As Dalgleish seemingly disconnects from the world, she delves into her past and the reticence to try slips away. All to be there for her little girl.

Paines Plough Roundabout Summerhall
Charlotte O’Leary, Toyin Omari-Kinch & Charlotte Bate (image courtesy of Rebecca Need-Menear)

Another fast-paced show about planned parenthood, Daf JamesOn The Other Hand, We’re Happy has a natural dialogue that stems from the relationship between Josh (Toyin Omari-Kinch) and Abi (Charlotte Bate). The audience have a role here too, this time as a sounding board around the ethics of adoption. By stating preferences – ticking boxes on a form – for such qualities as substance abuse or learning difficulties, this couple are only a step or two removed from the designer baby quandary. The rationale is that to adopt a child born from substance abuse, or to adopt a child with access needs, will require more preparation and be more of an effort.

But is it just a pick ‘n’ mix scenario? Is it classist? We as the audience are divided on some of these choices that the young couple are forced to make in Stef O’Driscoll’s ingeniously directed piece.

The spanner in the works here results in life-changing circumstances. Grief affects people differently – in Josh’s case it’s the determination to adopt little Tyler (the performance of the whole Roundabout season by Charlotte O’Leary) at any cost. Here is another show that isn’t afraid to tackle the hard questions head on in the name of love and loss and devotion.

Baby Reindeer Roundabout Summerhall
Richard Gadd (image courtesy of Andrew Perry)

However, devotion can easily turn sour. It can morph into obsession, anger, rage and a toxic series of exchanges. And Baby Reindeer ploughs headfirst into the darker side of such strong emotions. Richard Gadd’s stalker has ruined his life, all because he bought her a cup of tea and flirted with her during a bar shift six years ago.

Here, rather than the audience feeding off a positive energy, one that stems from standing up for a cause or for rallying against an injustice, we squirm and shift and look around nervously.

What if the stalker is here, in this room, watching us now?

In many ways, Baby Reindeer is the odd show out in the Roundabout season – it’s the one that intentionally chills the atmosphere. It isn’t gig theatre, musically powerful. It isn’t escapist, or rallying against injustice, or standing tall in the face of adversity.

It’s a shrink in our seats, pull a protective blanket around us and hope the bad goes away, kind of show. And it’s performed expertly by Gadd.

Paines Plough Roundabout Summerhall
Daniel Portman & Gavin Jon Wright (image courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic)

Topping off a programme full of emotional audience engagement, none is more determined to bring us into the middle of the action than Kieran Hurley’s Square Go – a school brawl that feels like the grudge match of the century. The combination of Hurley’s script and performances by Daniel Portman and Gavin Jon Wright make this the perfect antidote to skip happily into the night. Funny and well-conceived, Square Go is full of that teenage nostalgia – those rites of passage in a high school career. But it also acknowledges the validity and importance of teenage issues that often feel so small in adulthood.

And despite its light-hearted touch, there are weighty classist messages at play here. Square Go showcases the deeply entrenched lack of opportunity that comes from being working class – no prospects, treated as worthless, so why bother?

Daniel Portman (image courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic)

Well, if the Paines Plough Roundabout shows at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019 are anything to go by, there are so many reasons to bother.

To be brave, to work through grief, to stand up for injustice.

To erode those toxic foundations that have been too long stuck into our society, stubborn stains that have refused to wash out.

To feel joy, to share our creative efforts, to celebrate love and friendship and connection.

Why bother? Because we don’t have a choice. Because we care. Because this is our community we are fighting for. And this is the community that Paines Plough stands for.

The Claim ★★★★☆

On The Other Hand, We’re Happy ★★★★☆

How To Be Brave ★★★☆☆

Parakeet ★★★☆☆

Square Go ★★★☆☆

The Paines Plough season is now playing at Roundabout at Summerhall until 25 August 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the festival website.