[The following contains spoilers.]
You are often bumping into the cast of “Boy in a Bottle” at this year’s Fringe. They will carve the outline of a bottle into pavements and public squares with a piece of chalk. One of them will then lie down in the dirt whilst the others pounce at startled passers-by with their flyers. “I wouldn’t get so close to that pavement if I were you,” I caution, looking around for the teachers. “Germs,” I add meaningfully. But these young actors care too much about their play. Viewing them alertly, through my barman’s eye, I cannot see anybody who I would necessarily serve a bottle. You don’t have to watch them for very long before it becomes apparent that they are a school. The company is called Stargaze Theatre and they have travelled here from Truro.
In the venue, the Grand Theatre at the Surgeons Hall, an army of chanting goblins march out in formation in white ninja costumes. They will display the gusto of a high-school musical but there is a radical, hungry professionalism energising it all. The writer/director Benjamin Symes and his fellow director Johanna Egar make full use of the eighteen performers. The performers in turn take full ownership of the largest Space theatre.
Stargaze tell the story of a small seaside town (Truro is a prominent suspect) where everybody is a bit wacky and everything is a bit wonky. A Boy (Ed Townsend) and a Girl (Maddy Trudgian) are crafting a “pop-up book” that depicts their community. The cheery town is opened up on vast pages behind the performers; the cardboard townspeople appear in the windows of the houses as they come to life in the flesh on stage. The result is something like a full-colour shadow of the story. It looks gorgeously stylish.
A boy washes up on the beach in a human-sized glass bottle. Can it be that this entire play has sprouted from out of a common misapprehension amongst children about the word “buoy”? The play unfolds like a game of Happy Families, with the town’s doctor, policeman, vicar, journalist, and builder being all aired on the beach. Yet the childishness is subverted by some traditional seaside sauciness and this is likely to make us mildly wary. The builder’s firm is called Modest Erections; the local toffs are called the Flusterclucks (I don’t know how many millions of times the actors must have rehearsed saying this correctly). The boy remains as soundless and unreadable as a trapped insect behind his invisible glass. The townspeople berate him and appeal to him. He makes glum faces and it is not clear what they are meant to do.
Perhaps the meaning of this washed-up boy is settled when you suddenly remember the Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, whose drowned, photographed body is now one of the most recognisable images of the migrant crisis. The status of any migrant sets them apart, as though they are held soundlessly in invisible containers. This reading might still be in operation once “Boy in a Bottle” finished, but the play is greedy to move on and mean more and more. As each of the townspeople confronts the boy, they are put on the spot and their hearts are tested. That famous lyric might come back to you: “Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water… Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.”
I had to suppress an audible groan at this play’s “pop up” revelation. It is still a merry surprise rather than a disappointment. Philosophically, I get very impatient with the claims that are laid out by transgender people. I am not sure that their experiences can or should be reduced to a storybook fable about self-empowerment. But I am bringing this in from outside the play, and if we stay within its world, and assess “Boy in a Bottle” purely on its theatrical merits, then the ending is a superb, snazzy coup. Countless unfixed and moving pieces fall instantly into place with a single click.
Boy in a bottle – so that’s what it means!