I wanted to love it – but found Middle Child’s three-hander about (dis)connection to be astonishingly difficult to warm to. One Life Stand‘s combination of impenetrable characters, low-energy performances and unapologetically indecipherable lyrics did little more for me than reek of indifference.
All We Ever Wanted Was Everything was subversive, impressive, tricksy and (even to the most jaded of Fringe-goer) frequently exhilarating. I remember near-on missing the start of my own show in order to see it last year – and sprinting away from Summerhall with restored energy and excitement about what Fringe is and isn’t. My hopes were therefore high for Middle Child’s return to the Paines Plough Roundabout – and my expectations were also, not least because the Hull-based company have since become a national portfolio organisation.
Unfortunately, Eve Nicol’s three-hander about (dis)connection – One Life Stand – turned out to be a really frustrating watch for me. Middle Child introduce us to Kat and Kit – whose four-year relationship is on the rocks thanks to technology f&!$ing up the meaningfulness of interaction, and it presenting millenials with an ever-growing number of easily-accessible alternatives. We hear from both characters separately, in what I can only describe as quasi-poetic monologues, and quickly understand they’re lost and in search of something. Anything that’d release them from these virtual, and specifically Millenial, ‘shackles’. Sounds fine on paper, I suppose, if quite hackneyed.
My main problem with One Life Stand, though, is just how astonishingly low-energy proceedings are. I can of course only speak about the night I attended (and there is of course the possibility it was a ‘dud’ one) but the pace felt excruciatingly slow – and the characters so comparatively impenetrable with those from All We Wanted, lacking in enough warmth for even amenable audience members to grasp onto, that remaining engaged for any longer than five minutes became quite a feat.
Middle Child’s follow-up, for me, lacks a moment near the beginning where – as an audience member – you’re made to feel invited or welcome in the characters’ world. And it’s equally not an intriguing enough world for you to particularly want to ‘gatecrash’ either. So you sit there politely, and after a while of trying to keep up with what are often quite incomprehensible ‘monologues’ (there’s a hell of a lot of mumbling), you just start wondering how you and your audience’s experience – everyone on the night I attended seemed similarly fidgety – could be so drastically different from the acclaim the production seems to have received so far.
I appreciate Nicol is writing about ‘distance’, but can’t understand the benefit of the audience feeling distant also. Attempts are made at observationalist comedy but rarely hit the mark, and little insight – about technology, about millennial relationships, about pretty much anything – is offered for the experience to feel fulfilling or provocative. Directorially, I frequently also couldn’t understand the logic. Even on a really basic level: with an intimate and in-the-round staging configuration, and show where characters spend more time on their phones than not, Paul Smith is presumably astutely aware we can see exactly what they’re typing. If he isn’t fussed about them ‘actually’ doing what they’re saying they are (eg. googling ‘communist memes’), would it not be sensible to at least establish a convention of what is actually on phone screens for consistency? Instead, we sometimes had selfie cameras open, sometimes phones were being ‘typed’ into when the screen was entirely black – everything just came across as quite bizarrely lazy and indifferent.
One Life Stand‘s performances, too, did little for me to elevate the experience. I’m sure all are more than competent – but we don’t really get to see anything remarkable here. It also just didn’t seem like any of them were having any fun with it. And even the ‘gig-theatre’ sections, if we’re going to call them that despite only usually being a couple of ‘sung’ lines that you usually can’t quite hear properly, lacked enough energy to make me sit up, retune my ears and listen.
I apologise if this has come across as an assault, but if national portfolio organisations are to take shows to Summerhall (likely without anywhere near as much financial risk of the companies programmed around them), the last thing their show should come across as is indifferent or smug. With that stepladder and investment – which I stand by Middle Child deserving following last year’s smash-hit success – comes responsibility. And I think both we, and them, can do better than this.