Paines Plough’s flatpackable Roundabout Theatre is one of the most exciting new writing venues of the Fringe. Tucked in the rear courtyard at Summerhall, the intimate, domed space features several plays spotlighting Britain’s working class this year. From Scottish school gates to a Yorkshire village, the best writing here this Fringe wrenches theatre’s narratives away from the privileged classes.
Charley Miles’ two-character Blackthorn is the highlight. The only two children born in one village for a generation develop a close bond as kids, fall in love as teenagers, then differing aspirations shift their relationship as they transition into adulthood. With one going to work on a local farm after his GCSEs and the other going to sixth form, then university in London, their worlds polarise. When they reunite as adults, their encounters are far from the simple ones they had when they were little.
The story is a complex and nuanced commentary on growing up, and entitlement to a place’s traditions once you move away from it. Nostalgia, the urban/rural divide and privilege are also themes that impact their relationship, both directly and indirectly. More worldly experiences bring inevitable change that can emphasise social class discrepancies, and in this case it translates into exquisite tension between the two.
With stellar performances by Charlotte Bate and Harry Egan, we watch them begin on the same landscape with shared experiences. As they age, their paths lead them in such different directions that the way they perceive the world becomes totally different. Their common ground has been disrupted by a slow-motion earthquake and it will never be the same again.
Island Town, by Simon Longman, is similarly visceral but much more violent. A trio of teenagers are stuck in a small town with no prospects. All three live in abusive homes and whilst two assume responsibility for themselves and others as they age, the third rails against convention and wants to escape. There’s a lot of love between them, but a lot of rage and helplessness causes friction. Longman’s scenes are sharp and snappy, leading to a tragic end highlighting the cyclical natural of poverty and violence.
Another working class, youth culture play takes place in the run up to the school bell at the end of the day, when boys in this Scottish town have their fights outside the gates. Shy lad Max in Square Go has accidentally pissed off one of the school’s biggest bullies, so he’s figuring out how best to approach his impending death. His pal Stevie is helping him weigh up approaches and tactics, though Max isn’t finding this particularly helpful. As time ticks by, Max gets more and more stressed is this very funny and often touching look at toxic masculinity and boyhood culture.
Middle Child’s One Life Stand is the only letdown of these four working class works, though it’s not a bad piece. Middle Child is so good at capturing huge, essential truths and packing them inside characters. True to form, you could open up any of these three characters and find a galaxy. What’s hugely troubling is a romanticised, paedophilic narrative and some thin plotting, particularly towards the beginning. Big ideas and atmosphere are given precedence to building exposition and fleshing out characters, but Middle Child’s work is still commendable for their experiments with form and structure.
Sticks and Stones and Tremor are more middle class stories, though contain themes that are universal. Vinay Patel’s Sticks and Stones looks at a comfortable, successful career woman of moderate politics who struggles to keep up with what’s politically correct. After a display of genuine ignorance that is reported to HR, her resistance leads her down an unfortunate path. She’s easy to condemn in the echo chamber of liberal, theatregoers, but audiences of different political leanings could have very different responses to this show. It’s a clever look at the impact of language, though the script doesn’t discuss moral ambiguity and intention as thoroughly as it could.
Tremor‘s Sophie and Tom, a former couple, were involved in a horrific accident that caused their relationship and their worlds to disintegrate. Tom has moved on and carefully constructed a new life, but Sophie clearly hasn’t. Their attitudes towards forgiveness and supporting a racist establishment drive the conflict in their serpentine plot that takes a little too long to find its form and feels a touch overwrought by the end.
These six shows at the Roundabout exemplify Paines Plough’s focus on excellent new writing that’s relevant and thematically diverse. It’s another strong year in this cosy, in-the-round space that can transport audiences to other worlds.
Roundabout shows run through 26 August, then tour.