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Published on Saturday, 24 August 2013

4 stars

Zoo (venue website)
2-13, 15-26 Aug, 5:15pm-6:20pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

Within the first few minutes of this thought-provoking play, we’ve met Ted, a reclusive scientist at a research station in Alaska; listened to a lecture about the social practices of marine life; tuned in to some whale song, understood the uniquely interesting properties of a particular radio frequency, and gasped with delight as a live modern-folk band simulates a cassette-tape on rewind. I confess, by this point, I was wondering what on Earth I’d let myself in for, but it turns out that this eclectic mix is just the warm-up for the story proper. And what an excellent story it turns out to be.

The actor-musicians of Fine Chisel have developed themselves a playful, creative style, and roll in a few gentle meta-theatrical flourishes to keep the humour level high.  Occasionally the band members venture into the audience, or pause amusingly to listen in to the dialogue on the stage.  An attempt to enlist the crowd as extras was a little less successful – proving more than anything that, while you can get your audience onto its feet, you can’t force it to dance.  But overall, Fine Chisel do show a fine judgement here, taking their ideas far enough to seem fun-loving but not so far that they become a distraction from the substance of their show.

And the substance deserves our attention.  We see scenes involving the younger Ted – whose growth, cleverly, is represented by musical instruments of increasing size – which sometimes have an almost unbearable poignancy, as he learns about the nature of death and what it’s like to lose faith in the things you believed in.  And that’s not all that Ted is losing… a truth which emerges gently over the course of the play, but is only fully explained towards the end.  Ted’s voluntary isolation masks a desperate desire for contact, ably and delicately captured by an extremely impressive Robin McLoughlin.  And all these themes resonate cleverly together, connected by notions of communication, and of the ever-present need to reach out to one other.

Those topics also link into a cleverly-spun parallel story, where a middle-aged Ted helps a feisty young student – Fiona – set up a pirate radio station.  Needless to say, that particular plot-line is a big old excuse to throw in some musical numbers, but it does capture a nice sense of a specific moment in time: the days of the 50’s and 60’s, when free speech on the radio existed only under paternalistic control.  There’s a distracting moral ambiguity to some of these scenes – Fiona’s zeal begins to look unpleasant, towards the end – and more generally, I felt this part of the storyline could do with simplifying down.

So I’ve no doubt that Dumbstruck will, one day soon, be a truly exceptional piece of Fringe theatre.  But before it gets there, I think it needs a little work to clarify the narrative: the parallel storylines feel too disconnected, with a big rush to join them all together in the moments before the raucous climax.  It also leaves you to draw your own conclusions on its moral, though with so much to think about that’s arguably no bad thing.  So here’s the message I chose to take from Dumbstruck: that if radio’s a metaphor for life, then it’s fun to be on the airwaves… but it’s even more important to take the time to tune in.

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