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DugOut Theatre’s latest play has just ended a successful residency at the Bedlam Theatre, but I have yet to encounter a review of “Fade” which begins to do it justice. All of the current reviews, whether in print or on the blogosphere, are purely descriptive and yet between them they fail to offer any recognisable description of this play. The Edinburgh Spotlight review is typical of the whole crop, in volunteering that “Fade” is “intriguing” and “occasionally thought-provoking,” but not to the extent that it has provoked any apparent thoughts in Spotlight’s reviewer. When snobby artists previously used the phrase “casting pearls before swine,” it was intended as a complaint about wasting their art on the masses. It now might just as well apply to the critics.

I will have to come to the rescue once again…

“Fade” is indeed intriguing and thought-provoking despite the fact that it tricks the audience into laughing at a character who is quite plainly mentally ill. The journalist and blogger Danny (Will Barwick) is a schizophrenic whose mind has been largely concreted over with medication. He is pestering an old flame (Nina Shenkman) with the fantasy that they can get back together again: a flight of reason which will end in devastating paranoia. What could make his story even more eerie and sinister? Enter the clowns.

They invade and take over the play. There is a dopey stoner called Perch (Ed Smith) and a loveable crusty called Chippers (Luke Murphy), who is in fact one of Danny’s delusions. They successfully replicate the sound of a train, smile and sing a lot, throw ice cream to the audience, and deliver jokes which will make you groan and laugh at the same time (ie Perch’s boss: we have an excellent Merlot. Perch: And we’ve got wine as well.) Imagine a version of King Lear in which the Fool is much less brainy and he has been given two thirds of the dialogue. Chippers rallies Danny’s spirits and offers relationship advice. They perform an alternative clown version of Hamlet and wrap it up with a happy ending.

The writer Alexander Owen is clearly taking a massive risk here, but he will ensure that the audience gets all the blame. This year’s “yellowface” comedy “Beijing Cake” would attract Twitter ire and calls for it to be censored. Although “Fade” initially seems to be going the same way, it successfully wriggles off the hook. The cast appear to be enjoying themselves during the clown scenes, and the audience will laugh along unsuspectingly, but when Danny’s psychosis kicks in we will find that we are all on our own. We realise with horror that we have been laughing at a schizophrenic. How could we be so tactless? How mortifying! The cast look very serious now and so we should shut up and look serious too.

This play’s dedication to volte-face is reminiscent of Belt Up’s “Lorca is Dead” (2010), but it is much more than just a stylistic exercise. “Fade” also reminds me of Nottingham New Theatre’s “Chasing Dragons,” (2011) which put a paranoid schizophrenic on stage with his hallucinations, but NNT would end on an optimistic, or at least an aspirant note. “Fade” is a tragedy in which clowns are recruited to draw attention to how tragic it is. There is no way that it can end happily.

So what are we left with? Pity? For the last fifteen minutes of “Fade” Danny is a blubbering wreck and yet we may sense that weeping over his plight is an inadequate response. The most potent aspects of Danny’s ordeal were possibly unintended at the time of writing (and one gathers that this play has been partly improvised by the cast); but if we watch the merciless annihilation of a tabloid journalist, this powerfully captures something of today’s dire attacks upon press freedom.

Perhaps, however, Danny was never really a journalist. By the end of “Fade,” his schizophrenia has inundated and submerged every detail of the play, and we have no means of telling what is delusion and what real. Maybe this is a psychological thriller in which we are supposed to admire the superhuman ingenuity of Danny’s tormenter Andrew (Tom Black), but Andrew’s unlikely ambition to turn Danny’s breakdown into a film can be all too easily attributed to the latter’s paranoia.

How can such a dazzling performance leave us feeling so desolate? It is like leaping from one end of the Fringe to the other: from its most offensive stand-up comedy to its profoundest theatre. We go from laughing at mental illness to experiencing the horrific anguish and loneliness of the real deal.

[Tychy previously reviewed DugOut Theatre’s “Cover.”]