Nevermore Theatre’s “EH16: Pyre” is currently established at Space Triplex. The play takes a while to find itself. It is advertised in the Fringe guide as “horror” but there soon turns out to be more salad on the menu than gateau. In its introduction the play confesses to an earnestness that belies the gaiety of its Halloween face-paint. It will tell the stories of three Edinburgh women from different historical periods who were all mistreated and exploited in predictably similar ways. Agnes Sampson was burned as a witch and (at least according to this play) an abortionist in 1591; Jessie King was hanged in 1889 for murdering babies; whilst Violet Foster drowned in 2016 after trying to administer a home abortion in her bathtub.
No baby seems to last very long in this play. I am pretty sure that Foster is fictional, but with the other two the script does not delve into the local history with the thoroughness that such a format usually promises. Sampson’s portrayal is not reinforced by any persuasive sense of how abortions were really regarded in the sixteenth century. The fascination of King’s trial is likewise skirted over. Foster’s story is used as a vehicle for condemning the recent Tory “rape clause,” which stipulates that some women need to provide proof that they have been raped in order to claim certain tax credits. Melodramatic writing makes her circumstances sound oddly fanciful, when greater realism or detail could have packed more power into the punch.
Although it sounds like I am drawing up quite a charge sheet against “EH16: Pyre,” it is often thoughtful and at times quirky. In the end the play coagulates mostly around dance, song, and physical theatre, where it firmly knows its stuff. There is an agreeable unpredictability to the action, or a curiosity about what the three performers are going to come out with next. The demented pinging of a phone as a lover issues manically abusive and manipulative messages – the witch’s spitting on the floor in reply to how she pleads – these little sparks successfully light up some gist of the women’s stories.