This year’s Edinburgh Fringe came with a number of care warnings. Lyn Gardner urged artists and viewers alike to take care of their mental health at the festival, as the biggest arts hub in the world can feel difficult. With so much talent, onstage and off, pressures can vary from isolation to self-doubt. There will always be a better writer, actor, dancer, gymnast, and better artists and harsh reviewers can easily get you down. The pressures to absolutely see The Best Thing At The Fringe become exhausting, and days off are guilt-ridden – shouldn’t you be flyering?
Edinburgh Fringe 2017 came shortly after I graduated from university. Nothing has gone horribly wrong yet, but it remains a sensitive period professionally and emotionally. So far, my experience with mental illness has been limited to witnessing close friends and family suffering long-term. I’ve been “lucky” enough to struggle very little with anxiety or depression myself, and have never needed to add any other medical term to my daily dictionary. What this has meant though, is that my awareness and tangible compassion has at times been lacking.
While the conversation around mental health has grown, I have been watching. It’s like when you watch a film in a foreign language with subtitles – the translated text at the bottom of the screen tells you what they’re saying, but the characters’ mother tongue could contain a whole world of meaning that you just don’t understand. I have understood my friends and family, what they’ve told me about their struggles with mental health, and what charities and newspaper keep teaching me. Yet I felt myself lacking in investment and real understanding. Like a bit of a tourist, when I actually wanted to be able to show people the sights.
But somehow, my favourite bits of the festival gave me this mental health boost I’d been craving. Some empowering, some eye-opening, and some really heart-shattering moments helped me understand others’ and made me feel a whole lot better about my own. Ah yeah, the ‘pop music’ mention in the title – obviously, there was some excellent theatre. But fulfilling my best pop culture enthusiast stereotype, it was the recognisable Stone Roses, Clash or even Vera Lynn that soothed my soul and really got my head into gear. Here are my favourite moment of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and the pop music therapy that I needed.
Hot Brown Honey – It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World
I wrote about Hot Brown Honey at last year’s Fringe, and had been looking forward to seeing them again ever since. Much the same premise, the honeys are still electrifying and the hive so very empowering. But the moment that keeps swimming in my mind this year is their take on James Brown’s It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World. Ofa Fotu takes to the stage and gives a heart-churning and somewhat haunting performance of Brown’s classic. No acrobatics, no strobe lighting – Hot Brown Honey’s most static act might be their most soul-shaking. Her voice melts like butter and rips through doubt at ease. Her presence is overwhelming.
The performance gives the whole theatre a moment of calm, calculated reflection. It’s in taking the song we all know and sitting it in Hot Brown Honey’s fierce mission to “decolonize and moisturize” that it stirs up a fire. The implication of the song’s lyrics are finally given a fierce, exciting voice – and this show still has the potential to shake up so many cities, and the confidence of every young girl or woman lucky enough to see it.
Tribe – London Calling
There is so much to be celebrated about Tribe. Temper Theatre are exhilarating and engrossing, performing physical theatre which pulls every gasping breath from its audience members. Tribe sees a contemporary man in a suit surrounded by fellow men and women in suits, and, from what I gathered, kind of hating all of it. An alter-ego/ghost-like presence latches on to him, following him around in his office-pub-home monotony with more of the sartorial tribal aesthetic to be expected from the show’s title.
I was amazed to find out that Tribe‘s fascinating soundtrack (designed by Dom Gowland) underpinning the entire hour-long performance is, in fact, one single track. It breaks and bends, illustrating the protagonist’s isolation, anxiety and struggle with himself through the many dark corners of his identity. My favourite part of the physical odyssey was when the suit-clad ensemble stumbled into a nightclub, and the score warped into blaring ‘London Calling’ by The Clash. The stereotypes and their struggles suddenly felt more real and the stakes of the crushing dangers of metropolitan adulthood grew higher.
I’m not even a huge Clash fan, but when the fantastical fiction bled out into a near-dystopia of a working London, claustrophobic clubs and a self-doubting shadow flavored by infectious riffing guitar, the edge of my seat suddenly felt a bit stiffer.
Translunar Paradise – We’ll Meet Again
I won’t lie, I didn’t actually love Translunar Paradise. On paper, it was everything I was looking for: a story about love, loss and memory, with live music and convincing puppetry. In practice, I did struggle with most of the music – objectively evocative, but not quite up my street. However, the moment that got me and made me believe the hype was a charming, heartbreaking sequence gently underscored by Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’.
In a more contemplative moment, the lovers are finally given words, sung if not spoken, that resonate with everyone who knows what it feels like to have a pang in your chest, reminding you to miss someone. It was the first 10 minutes of Up, the flashbacks in La La Land and every other skilfully executed nostalgia trip in onscreen romance. While the majority of the show left me somewhat distracted, thinking of these other pop culture instances that affected me more, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ allowed me to connect with the importance of remembering, and not letting go of what an illness tries to take away.
Deadpan Theatre: Third Wheel – Original Score
Ok so I may have cheated with this one – there is no one pop song that provided me with answers in Third Wheel. Deadpan Theatre’s new show offers a mature, thoughtful and utterly charming road trip with the world’s next best comedy duo, Mack & Salt.
Deadpan Theatre are notorious for their fast-paced, relatable humour, confirming their importance within the intelligent-sitcom tapestry of the near future. With last year’s PREDRINKS|AFTERPARTY, writing duo Jude Mack and Eliot Salt proved their talent as lyricists with infectious pop songs (special mention to ‘Crisp in the Carpet’), worthy of any real deserving predrinks (or afterparties). But Third Wheel showed a shift – where past material provided light entertainment for the relatable millenial, this show asks bigger questions and offers brave answers on what it’s actually like, behind Buzzfeed and avocado on toast.
Mack and Salt have met their match with composer Joseph Ruddleston, as the songs illustrating the road trip in Third Wheel give the story its wistful and melancholic allure. Onstage band Party in the Sky narrate Polly & Eve’s road trip with their best friend’s ashes in a Wizard of Oz lunchbox. Dealing with friendship, loss and second chances, Third Wheel felt reassuring and vital, for a young adult in the audience looking back on mistakes and hoping to not fuck up whatever comes next. Also, I’m pretty sure this is officially the moment that Deadpan Theatre spirals into stardom, so it felt good to be there at the turning point.
Jack Rooke: Happy Hour – I Am The Resurrection
I’m still trying to come to terms with Jack Rooke: Happy Hour. I knew very little about the show and didn’t really like the posters, but something was nudging me and promised I had to end my time in Edinburgh by seeing it. I’m so glad I did.
I rarely cry at films and I have never cried at a piece of theatre. Well, I hadn’t until Happy Hour. It’s a comedian telling a story in a pub. It’s an unassuming, brave and important hour-long story of Jack and his friend Olly, who took his own life. Skinny Jack, Cunty Jordan and Ben are also key players in the charm and magic of Happy Hour. But for me it was when the Stone Roses kicked in, and ‘I Am The Resurrection’ filled the speakers that I couldn’t stop crying.
Somehow, even when a story has a turn for the worse, I’m always reassured by the fact that it’s not real. However morbid or uplifting a pop song gets, its impact remains distant while its inspiration is unknown. But when Jack was explaining everything about Olly, about Good Grief (his previous show) and about friendship, the Stone Roses crept in and elevated it all to the point where I couldn’t even stutter more than a tear-stained “thank you” when Ben gave me a hug after the show.
I don’t know if there is a God, but I’m pretty sure that someone somewhere is looking out for me, looking out for Jack and looking out for anyone who sees Happy Hour. For all the “you will laugh, you will cry”s you’ll hear at the Fringe – believe this one. I don’t want to say the show was incredible, because it feels invasive to his story and the very real story that is still affecting young men and women everywhere. But it made me worry, it made me care and it made me desperately want to do everything I could to be whatever the young men in my life need me to be.
Jack Rooke: Happy Hour, with its Stone Roses and its James Blake and everything else – not to be over-dramatic, but it may have just changed me for the better.