The Edinburgh Fringe is suddenly chock-a-block. The streets are full of people roaming about, as in old photographs of authentic revolutions. This is partly due to the sunny weather and partly because it is a Saturday, but mostly, I imagine, because of widespread Fringe guilt. There are only two days left and many people who I have spoken to are now conscious that they have still not organised seeing any shows. It is like when somebody buys a bumper pack of fruit and then hastily starts on them just as they are all turning brown.
Today is the final performance of Scintilla Theatre’s “Penthouse” at the Space on Niddry Street, so I should be beyond worrying about spoiler alerts. Had I reviewed this play earlier in Fringe, though, then I would have been in some quandary about how to account for it. To one walking in fresh off the street, “Penthouse” is suspense-fuelled, a piece in which mysterious characters squabble in a luxury London penthouse suite. Yet if you have glanced at the flyer, you will know that Ewan, the ill-fated investment banker who is created and played by Ed Brody, is preparing to commit suicide. It feels like I am revealing a spoiler, although this is officially a product description.
The plot of “Penthouse” appears flimsy and yet, rather as with the cocaine-addled protagonist, it possesses a fund of nervy energy that keeps it staggering onwards. Ewan has invited along an escort, Eloise (Catherine Lamb), to share his final hour – literally an hour, since this is all that he is paying for. He is unable to get aroused and then he is abruptly uninterested in trying. He has purchased Eloise but she is unobtainable; he stands before her deadened and humiliated.
This looks powerful, and some sharp acting always guarantees that it is, but I was not, in the end, really convinced that it is psychologically plausible. There is a fine allegorical spuriousness coating the realism like a skin. Two boisterous buddies (Dario Coates and Ryan Hutton) later invade the hotel room to the further detriment of the realism. Hutton’s innocent character is well put across, but the comic relief makes the drama seem unwelcomely safer or more comfortable.
The escort inevitably grows philosophical and with this the drama becomes more of a success. Beneath Eloise’s calm sympathy she is completely unreadable. Perhaps there is some travesty of Christ’s “noli me tangere” being enacted. The client and escort never touch sexually, but when he at last reaches out for her help, she kisses him and departs like Judas.
What “Penthouse” proves perfect at is evoking the utter awfulness of London. Ewan and his buddies drink neat spirits with cocaine as a mixer. Hilariously, the cocaine is dumped in a fruit bowl in the middle of the suite. The character of Danny (Coates) is somehow both the clichéd ghastly banker and superbly realistic. He could be drawn straight from life – we have been all probably on the receiving end of such a character at some point or another. He is a public school alumnus and no doubt an unfailing rugby man; he can exhibit a boyish charm and a grotty vulgarity in equal measure; he can never concentrate on anything other than what he is talking about; he is as loud as a donkey and yet he is mercilessly clever in that thick head and behind those cold eyes of his. This lurid character manages to convey everything that “Penthouse” is otherwise struggling to communicate.