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The Wake
Published on Friday, 20 August 2010

3.5 stars

Bedlam Theatre (venue website)
6-28 Aug, 8:00pm (8:40pm)
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

Thank goodness The Wake is only 40 minutes long; my poor brain would have fried if I’d seen any more.  Not, I stress, because the time dragged (on the contrary, it was over in a flash), nor because it’s badly acted (it’s anything but).  No, it’s just that The Wake is really, really, really fast and has a really, really, really complicated plot – demanding almost as much commitment from its audience as it does from those on the stage.

The set-up, I’ll warrant you, is simple enough: Alec, our unreliable narrator, describes the farcical events which ensued when his father died and his extended family gathered for the final time.  Handily enough, Alec is also an impressionist – this play doesn’t go for subtlety in plot devices – and thus we’re launched into a frenetically madcap monologue, where he acts the parts of the rest of his family yet simultaneously still stays himself.

Oops, did I say “monologue”?  That had been Alec’s plan… but it turns out the characters he’s aping aren’t quite as far away as he believes.  Between sibling rivalries, an estranged wife and the mystery bun in his aunt’s oven, you can be sure Alec’s version of the story isn’t the only one we’ll hear before the night is out.

With the actors off the leash and free to roam the stalls, the rest of the play’s one giant exercise in oddball creativity – though at times you have to ask whether they’re doing it for a reason, or merely because they can.  One emotional crux scene, for example, was acted out in complete darkness, with the actors standing in the aisles of the auditorium far behind my head.  On the one hand, what on Earth did they think they were doing?  But on the other, the radio-like quality of the experience did throw an uncommon focus on the dialogue… and while I wouldn’t want many plays to be staged that way, it was fun to try just one.

Be warned, though: The Wake requires your absolute focus, and if your attention slips at the wrong moment, all is lost.  You get one run through the characters, and one brief reprise; if you’re not then completely across who’s who, you’ll struggle ever to fill in the gaps.  Combine that with the constant leaping in and out of character and Alec’s tendency to change key details of his story, and you’ll understand why I spent a good portion of the 40 minutes feeling thoroughly confused.

But it’s impressive that, amidst all this chaos, the script does still find time to develop its characters.  We come to understand Alec’s insecurities and desires, and through the impressions, the characters in the theatre learn surprising truths about themselves.  There are some very funny moments, a few touching ones too, and an unexpected twist to reward you for making it to the end.  So, there’s a lot about The Wake you’ll enjoy; it’s hard work to watch, but it’s justly rewarded.

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These are archived reviews of shows from the Edinburgh Fringe 2010.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to those we've featured, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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