theSpace Triplex, Edinburgh – until 27 August 2021
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Saving Mr Ultimate, New Celts Production and Extra Arca’s tale of superheroes, grief and letting go mixes the serious and the humorous effectively in creating a world that is both believable and ever-so-slightly superhuman.
John McEwan-Whyte’s play is set in an unnamed small Scottish town where a rundown comic shop is being cleared out prior to sale. The owner of the shop committed suicide some years before, and now his elder son Barry is leaving for Australia, but younger son Paul is having trouble letting go of his memories of the shop, his father and the superhero Mr Ultimate.
There are a great many things to admire about the script. Its construction makes efficient use of one setting, while the stories about family, loss and belonging fairly ache with truthful vulnerability. Much of the dialogue is sharp and clever.
Most of the problems stem from a lack of editing – this is yet another 75-minute play that would be far better at 50 minutes. If we are not already aware that superheroes are only fictional, we might get it the first time instead of it being constantly repeated.
The central character is Paul, a 17-year-old manchild, hurting, selfish and needy. Andrew Nimmo’s performance is admirably realistic and magnetic. At times, indeed, there is almost too much realism – the occasionally sulky, head-down, swallowing of words is just how such a character would behave, but does not always help the audience.
Indeed, there is a carefully downbeat air about much of André Agius’ direction that is very clever, but does not always work. Some of the dialogue is darkly comic, but will not have such an impact when so delicately underplayed. There are certainly a couple of moments that justify the ‘strong language’ warning on the Fringe website, but it seems like the cast may not believe they are necessary, treating these outbursts with kid gloves rather than attacking them.
Since the play already deals with weighty issues using an enviably light touch, there would be nothing wrong with giving it another shot of energy.
These are all minor quibbles, that tightening up over the run could easily eliminate. As it is, all of the performances have much to recommend them, even if some of the other characters remain underwritten compared to Paul.
Charlie Devlin gives Barry a suitably conflicted air as a young man grown up too fast, torn between family loyalties and the truth. Eleanor McMahon as his partner Annabelle is every inch the starchy outsider, participating in Barry’s family but as yet unable to fully live in it.
Fin Watt’s character Will is perhaps the most underwritten, but they manage to tread a fine line between cynicism and desperation, while Scott Fenwick’s lovesick Liam is a winning characterisation providing much-needed lightening of the mood while still hinting at deep sadness.
Caitlin Knight’s shop manager Abbs is another underwritten part, but she invests it with considerable emotional stoicism.
There is an interesting mix of fragility and steel on display here; if the mix is not quite right as yet, it is certainly extremely promising.
Running time 1 hour 15 minutes (no interval)
theSpace Triplex, The Prince Phillip Building, Hill Pl, EH8 9DP (Venue 38)
Saturday 7 – Friday 27 August 2021 (odd dates only)
1.05 pm (odd dates only)
Information and tickets at https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/saving-mr-ultimate