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The Ballad of the Unbeatable Hearts
Published on Monday, 22 August 2011

5 stars

Gilded Balloon Teviot (venue website)
3-29 Aug, 12:15pm-1:15pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 14+ only.

So this is what he's been building up to. For the last two or three years, critics - myself included - have been consistent in their acclaim of Richard Fry's one-man plays, which explore the turmoil of those who find themselves at odds with the expectations of society. But there's always been a bleakness to Fry's scripts: a sense of hopelessness, the airing of problems without solutions. Now, he presents his manifesto; the fictional tale of an unexpected hero, offering a tantalising glimpse of a better world and the oddly small steps which could take us there.

Returning to the theme of his best-known work, Bully, Fry's central character is an ordinary young man from a working-class family... who's struggling with the realisation that he's gay. But let's ditch right now that "gay interest" label: this is a play with the power to speak to anyone. It's a tale of despair turned to delight; of torpor turned to purpose; and yes, of prejudice turned to tolerance. There are uncompromising moments along the way, not least when Fry challenges the cosy view that homophobia is confined to the past, but they're always balanced by a feeling of hope.

The Ballad Of The Unbeatable Hearts is just a touch more theatrical than Fry's previous work, replacing the first-person narrative with a couple of distinct characters portrayed on stage. It's all the better for that minor tweak. A true master of his craft, Fry employs a trademark style of unintrusive verse, hovering on the borderline between oratory and poetry; often it rhymes, but sometimes it doesn't - and you never feel the trammels of metre have interfered with what he really wanted to say. He specialises, too, in the emotional wrench, but this isn't a depressing play... it's often very funny, never more so that during Fry's hilarious deconstruction of why people read the Daily Mail.

Of course, what Fry himself is doing is scarcely less extreme: his plot develops into a Guardian-reader's paradise, filled with love, tolerance, and support for those in need. But this is a well-planned fairytale, which lists the tiny steps - a phone call here, a chance meeting there - which could help any one of us find a better purpose for our lives. And if you think the whole thing's getting a bit silly - maybe at the point where Radiohead cover Shiny Happy People - hang on in there: he knows what he's doing, and if you've seen Fry's previous plays you'll be waiting for the sting in the tail.

In fact, "hang on in there" is the enduring message of this ultimately serious play. The statistics tell a tragic story: the suicide rate among young gay men is hugely out of proportion to their number - and if we turn our backs on Fry's alternate reality, what we're left with is devastating. In a sense, Fry has re-imagined It's A Wonderful Life for a new generation, and in the process built a work which proves both vital and entertaining. Above all, it's a compelling rallying cry - an insistence that another way is possible. And that's a message which was worth waiting three years for.

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