It is customary for my final review of the Fringe to alight upon some suitably gloomy topic. Harrowingly, the Fringe’s theatres are being everywhere dismantled. With the rows of plastic seating being stacked up, and the black curtain walls being unhooked from the rigging, the stages that they surround will be soon lost again amongst the innocuous patterns of chancel or basement flooring. Yet C Aquila is dallying into Monday and Jessica Palfrey‘s “When the Friendship Has Sailed,” the show that I have gone for, should have an affinity with the sadness of today. Its theme is loneliness.
This play is actually part of a campaign to tackle mass loneliness. The propaganda that comes with the show tells us that, “there are nine million lonely people in the UK and four million of them are older people.” “Nonsense!,” I snort. I am perplexed as to how you can ever hope to measure such a subjective input as loneliness. One person will think that they are rich beyond computation with only two friends; another might chat with hundreds of people every day and still feel that nobody understands them. Next, however, I read that, “Edinburgh is the loneliest city in the UK for older people.” By now, my hypochondria is starting to twitch. “Older people” can’t mean me, can it? At 35, I nowadays feel like I am a dinosaur. Maybe I have been lonely for all of this time and I have never realised it until it was confirmed by this play. I begin to panic – when was the last time that I spoke to anybody?
The problem that Jessica Palfrey faces is that loneliness is a devil to dramatise. A characteristic storyline would feature somebody sitting in their flat all evening and checking their phone every ten minutes for new messages. Samuel Beckett could get away with this – it’s probably the plot of about a dozen of his plays – but Fringe theatre requires more razzmatazz. “When the Friendship Has Sailed” answers this with a singing goldfish. The lonely protagonist Carrie (Natalie Ann Jamieson) has only a goldfish called Christina to confide in. From time to time, Christina personified (Elizabeth Edmonds) appears behind Carrie in a glittering gold dress to sing cabaret songs. This is enough to send the depressed play’s serotonin levels through the roof.
“When the Friendship Has Sailed” combats Carrie’s loneliness with the same abandon that any Hollywood romcom solves the heroine’s problem of being single. Carrie has become estranged from her best friend Rachel but “there are plenty more fish in the sea,” just as there are always more available Mr Rights out there for the conventional romantic heroine to mate with. So this is a cheerful, cartoonish play, in which there is ten times as much hilarity on stage as despair. Loneliness, like Brexit, is mostly the culture of the elderly, but Carrie is fresh-faced enough for us to relate to. She is just socially awkward rather than being depleted of people skills in any way that might realistically disadvantage her. She embarks on a picaresque and the three performers (Palfrey is the third) ensure that her path is strewn with funny characters and quirky incident. Perhaps her story is only melancholy because there is a tacit understanding between the play and the audience that real life, for now kept at a remote distance, is far darker.
After the play, I wind up in the Gilded Balloon’s library bar, drinking with an old friend and talking about (inevitably) Brexit. Over the last few days, I have been inviting different friends to inspect Fringe shows with me, which has felt refreshing or like a needed corrective to the loneliness of the incognito critic. Outside, meanwhile, people are gathering in the darkness on the Meadows and the Princes Street Gardens and Calton Hill for the finale to the Fringe. There is music and a salvo of rockets. Edinburgh Castle explodes into pink and orange flames, so that it looks like a malfunctioning birthday cake. Then the fireworks begin to open up, flower, and droop in the sky. Luscious pink and green sea anemones, spreading their tentacles of light. Chandeliers dripping clusters of pearls.
Suddenly, there are gasps from the crowd. Coordinated pink rockets have briefly spelt out some legible words:
“SUMMER IS OVER.”
People automatically stand back. Some of them grab for their children. There are more rockets:
“IT IS COLDER NOW. THE NIGHTS ARE DARKER.”
Wild terror is struck deep into every single person, like a spear thrust.
“BACK TO WORK TOMORROW.”
More squibs burrow their way across the sky and then burst into fiery letters for a split second:
“THAT’S IT – GO HOME NOW – BACK TO YOUR DREARY LIVES – IT’S OVER.”
Finally, in fleeting white letters over the castle and above the whole of the city: