Today brings a new venue: the Roundabout at Summerhall which, alas, is not genuinely a roundabout. The name made me somehow picture a Fringe audience in cars endlessly encircling a traffic island and peering up through their windscreens as a company performed Hamlet on the top. It would be a logistical challenge – the cast would have to use megaphones to be heard over the traffic, which would subtract a lot of realism from the play… Ah, but the Roundabout? Yes, it’s a sort of mini, multi-coloured amphitheatre which looks rather like a roulette wheel. It’s informal and atmospheric and a nice addition to the Fringe.
Gary Kitching’s “Dead to Me” is about a man named Steven (Kitching himself) who has been given a voucher for a reading in a spiritualist’s parlour. At first this play is unimpeachably neutral: a sceptic like me can see all of the cold-reading and manipulation; a believer might spot some kind of evidence in there somewhere. Yet most of the audience titter whenever the psychic (Tessa Parr) catches the light and seems suddenly transparent.
There is an urgency or a freshness to Parr’s performance – her character is at once ghastly and warm, corrupt and honest, girlish and wise. Psychics are so sinister because they take a subject which is naturally horrific – the annihilation of human beings – and when they are finished with it, there is only an impossible blandness left. They exorcise ghosts in the very act of raising them. This psychic has intense, searching eyes and a practical smile; her words sound automatically dishonest but there is some unexpected fluency within her body language which means that you never take your eyes off her.
“Dead to Me” is not wholly a farce or completely a satire – it is quite happy to just watch a psychic at work. I have seen spiritualism taking some truly vicious satirical beatings before, in everything from the commentary of Friedrich Engels to South Park, but this play only delivers a mild shake. The tragedy can never be profound because the matter at hand is humdrum human stupidity, the cheapness and sentimentality of two people who have opted out of the world. There is a powerful moment, however, when the characters embrace and, unless you blinked and missed it, they had briefly experienced life and death.