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[The following contains spoilers.]

Over at C Nova, Bricks & Mortar Theatre’s new play “Barge Baby,” which is written by Georgia Bliss, joins the Callow family on their canal barge in the hours leading up to the birth of a new baby. Generations are coming and going: the patriarch Glenn (Tom Telford) becomes a grandfather at the same time that his wife Mary (Raine Coles) makes up her mind to leave him. There is a general snipping of cords, both umbilical and marital. The play is set in 1990 and so the baby would be today old enough to perform on the Fringe.

“Barge Baby” bears a strong likeness to Alchemist Theatre’s 2012 play “Sealand,” in which a family established their own community on an abandoned sea fort out in the North Sea. Both plays present a student cast with the same problem of convincingly resembling a family of very different ages. “Barge Baby” made me feel less seasick, because it is smoothly bittersweet, rather than careening between comedy and tragedy. Yet if this play successfully avoids tragedy, the related cost is that its characters’ anguish comes across as unimportant.

Mary is suffering from that rarest of things – a female midlife crisis – but it is hard to sympathise with somebody who fears that they are going nowhere in life when they have chosen to live aboard a landlocked houseboat. If Ruby, the tearaway daughter, tries to sort out Mary’s problems by introducing ecstasy to her food, this ultimately seems like the most sensible decision in the play (significantly Ruby is also played by Georgia Bliss, the writer). Perhaps all of the dilemmas in Chekhov’s dramas could have been solved if the characters had taken drugs, but it is hard to have patience with such characters. They, and Mary included, are in the end just making a fuss.

Thankfully, “Barge Baby” amounts to more than Chekhov in a canal. The cast and the director, Will Cowell, work hard to make the Callows likeable and yet this family are still flavoured with something alien, the crustiness of the sort of people who inhabit houseboats. Glenn is a particularly difficult character to master: he has to be annoyingly unfunny, so that we can understand Mary’s frustration with him, whilst still remaining funny enough for us to be able to laugh at him. Telford pulls it off, paradoxically bringing great energy to Glenn’s combination of bleary-eyed pot-smoker and stuffy ageing hippy. Unfortunately, his character seems to be more solid than the ground beneath its feet, and we might struggle to see how his family could have really endured him for so long.

The Callows also face stiff competition for our sympathy from a brigade of somewhat familiar-looking mallard ducks who appear during the scene-changes. The quacking is so authentic that this lot look more like ducks than ducks do themselves. These ducks sing songs, however, which is not so good if you value authenticity. As Tychy has previously pointed out, there is no reason why plays such as this cannot use real wildfowl, and indeed, these creatures are supremely suited to Fringe theatre. The introduction of a dozen live mallards would have made “Barge Baby” perfect and plunged us anew into its anarchistic world.

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