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TV UK, 26 August

Theatre vs TV: a letter from the Edinburgh Fringe.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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As has become traditional at this time of year, this week’s TV UK comes from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where once again I am taking the pulse of contemporary theatre, with only a text message from the troll who lives on the sofa to let me know that something terrible happened in Saturday’s episode of The Shield, and it’s all Shane’s fault. Some of the troll’s previous conduct in absence taken into account, it could have been worse.

Anyway, I’ve been talking to an American playwright/director about the relationship between theatre and television, and he was pretty insistent that it was long overdue theatre acknowledged the absurdity of producing naturalistic shows of a type done much better on TV. To say a play is like a TV show is pretty damning among theatre people, but the phenomenon is surprisingly persistent.

One obvious culprit is East Coast Chicken Supper, the debut play from Scottish playwright Martin J Taylor, and winner of a prestigious Fringe First award. The set is actually better than the average TV set, an incredibly elaborate reconstruction of a Fife cottage, inside and out, and the dialogue is completely naturalistic. Appropriately enough, the piece is directed by Richard Wilson, ‘TV’s Victor Meldrew’. Audiences are certainly wowed by the set, and then amused by the witty banter of the characters, a bunch of young drug dealers who chatter inanely if sometimes wittily about life, cookery and aliens for an hour and a half.

But that’s about it. Not only does the play lack any specifically theatrical aesthetic, but it doesn’t even have a plot to speak of, and thus is perhaps closer to scripted ‘reality TV’ than traditional living room drama. There are certainly a few laughs, but you come out wondering why you went in.

Contrast this with another Fringe First winner, Give Up! Start Over! In the Darkest of Times I Look to Richard Nixon for Hope, by young New York company TEAM. This is a one-woman show that looks like every theatre-sceptic’s nightmare of what fringe theatre is about. A hyperactive young woman sweats profusely as she staggers about the minimalist set delivering an apparently insane monologue about TV, reality and spoon-bending, and occasionally sticking her head in a fridge containing a camcorder so we can watch her on a TV screen.

The script is anything but naturalistic, and nor is it a lecture or any other conventional form. But while a piece like this is never going to attract the kind of audiences who want TV on stage, it is an intelligent take on TV itself, and the way it packages reality in often misleading ways.

If theatre is to be more than second-rate television, this is the sort of thing it ought to be doing. Of the dozen or so shows I’ve seen in the past few days, it is the more theatrical ones that are likely to stay with me when I return to the sofa, and subtly to alter the way that I think about TV. That, it could be argued, is the point of having more than one form.

As a committed believer in television as a distinct and intelligent form, in the darkest of times I look to theatre for hope. And vice versa.

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