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I returned to the Pleasance Zoo this afternoon to catch Elizabeth Bourne’s play “Only One Wing,” which is one of two productions brought to the Fringe by the Nottingham New Theatre (the other, “The Retreat,” is reviewed here). “O.O.W.” portrays Esther (Lauren Grant), a young M.E. sufferer who, from the confines of her bed, dramatises her condition through the fantasy of Rye, a fairy who is born with a single wing and accordingly consigned to the ground. A lot of Esther’s story is narrated by two smart-talking fairy attendants (Simon Foster and Cem Aytacli), and the play is ultimately a lot more pleasant and undemanding if one regards all the fairies as just as “real” as Esther. It seems unlikely, in any case, that a child’s innocent mind could create the bigotry and third-world exploitation which blight Rye’s fairy homeland (in one fantastic joke, the grounded Rye gets a job in a sweatshop run by the wing-garment manufacturer “Rightwing”). Perhaps Esther’s M.E. merely finds its reflection in the little society at the bottom of the garden.

One gathers that it is very rare for young people to develop M.E., and “O.O.W” treats such victims reverentially, despite the niggling uncertainty about the disorder amongst medical people. At one point the fairies even scold Ricky Gervais for his jokes about M.E. being the preserve of Western malingerers. To insist upon compassion for those suffering from a terrible disorder is reasonable enough, but it will not suffice to conclude, as the fairies do, that M.E. is just “physiological,” especially as without the forthright intervention of the fairies, one may have developed all sorts of cynical suspicions about Esther’s condition.

I was initially put off from seeing “O.O.W” due to its gloomy subject – and the hackneyed way in which both fairy tales and obscure medical conditions are generally represented on stage – but the unexpected quality of “The Retreat” lead me to a last-minute attendance (both plays leave Edinburgh after tomorrow). Although “The Retreat” is the more mature of the two, “O.O.W.” has the greater ambition, its dialogue is funnier and cleverer, and it exacts a lot more from its cast, principally in the two centrepiece performances. Lauren Grant’s Esther could have been a potentially embarrassing spectacle, but she captures the voice and physicality of a pampered but frightened child with striking success. Flo Hapgood is equally convincing as her merry and stoical, if increasingly cracking, mother.

The antics in fairyland could threaten to detract from the power of this drama, but the comedy is deployed sparsely and with admirable judgement.  Yet when it wants to be, “O.O.W.” is as savvy at entertaining an audience as a good children’s pantomime, and this leads one to wish that the cast had a bigger theatre to play with than the Zoo’s cupboard-under-the-stairs. The play’s audience-friendliness is further demonstrated by its suggestion of a happy ending, which I was content to tolerate although its earlier despair was more to my taste. “What use is a fairy with only one wing?” Rye’s father demands, leading one, with an eye on the bedridden figure of Esther, to the conclusion “none at all,” but perhaps we should here briefly forget the strictures of medical science and remember the wisdom of Luciano de Crescenzo: “We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.”

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