Four days into the Festival, and I might have found the best piece of Fringe theatre I’m likely to see this year. That may be a daring claim, but If This Is Normal is the sort of production that I most admire: simple, effective, and skilfully presented with minimal (evident) fuss.
My usual complaint about venues offering cramped theatre-spaces, shoe-horned into places where they barely fit, applies. But with just three chairs, minimal props, ubiquitous mobile phones and a load of quick-change clothes, the three actors made full use of their thin, wide-playing space. It put them so close to the audience, there was no option but to break the fourth wall from time to time.
Perhaps I’m saying that because the players had such a great rapport with the audience? Or due to the way they deftly swapped between narrative, inner monologue, and dialogue? Or because of that cheeky selfie with a man on the front row during the night-club scene? Yes: but it was also because the storyline was amusing and moving, the acting, superb; the pace, engaging, and the delivery, totally naturalistic and slick.
We are energetically introduced to our three characters in a punchy opening scene, and then taken right back to where the story begins, when they first meet at school. Pakistani brother and sister Madani and Maryam, (Isambard Rawbone and Zarima McDermott) and displaced South Londoner, Alex (Aoife Smyth) find themselves like fish out of water in a North London school. The siblings quickly become friends when outspoken Alex stands up to a racist classmate.
It seems like the sort of friendship that will last a lifetime, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that childhood friendships rarely remain into adulthood – even in these days of social media. Furthermore, teenage romances endure even less, especially when they are with your best friend’s brother. But I mustn’t give too much away. This is so much more than a ‘coming-of-age’ tale.
The characters are wonderfully drawn, and it’s clear that a lot of work has gone on between writer, Lucy Danser, the three actors, and Director, Helena Jackson. Alex, for all her blond smiles and confidence is slightly old-fashioned, while Maryam is darker and serious, ambitious and driven. The former wonders “if it isn’t too anti-feminist” just to want to get a job and have babies, while the latter, whether writing an essay on Pride & Prejudice or finding that every new fact she learns about the world makes her angry, becomes impassioned for change.
And yet, while Maryam is sexually liberated, Alex is surprisingly coy, secretly hoping her first sexual encounter will be with the man she will marry. Of course, things are not so simple. Madani, on the other hand, has to navigate between these two seemingly opposite channels of feminism, with the only advice coming to him from the Mosque and Phil – his boxing coach who he admires, yet can never bring himself to talk with honestly. The young women have better female role-models it seems, but the siblings, it transpires, are without a father-figure. The reason for this isn’t fully explained, leaving a sinister lacuna in the text.
For a play that is so rapid and wordy (making the awkward silences doubly-so) there isn’t a wasted or lost line. The tension is brilliantly managed, especially when a particular sexual encounter threatens to put more than a rift between brother, sister, friend. The world of modern sexual politics, differing ideals, and an internet full of conflicting advice, is brought to a dramatic climax that has the audience rapt.
Even at the play’s denouement, questions are left hanging, and the almost throwaway final line – equal in humour and pathos – is, like the whole performance, perfectly pitched.
You can see If This Is Normal at ZOO Playground from 6th – 26th August at 14:00. For tickets, please visit www.edfringe.com