Thursday 1 September 2011

I said no

You Once Said Yes, Underbelly, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

There’s just about the spoonful of sugar in You Once Said Yes to help its bitter medicine go down. It is essentially a city-wide guilt trip, reliant on the deep-set sense of selfishness, that, no matter how honourable your intentions and how charitable your actions, there’s always more to be done. Were it not for the niceties, the moments of kindness and good turns provided, it would be hectoring and patronising.

Greeted by a tour operator, dressed in the obligatory pencil shirt and pillbox hat, you’re prepared for adventure. An orange knapsack is filled with titbits. Names and details are taken. Cheeks are pecked. And you’re off, out of the Underbelly onto Cowgate with no further instructions.

A gently probing string of theatrical encounters, You Once Said Yes offers multifarious first-person experiences along the lines of You Me Bum Bum Train. Only they take place in public, rather than a private space in which to live out fantasies. One moment you’re singing with a homeless man, the next, chasing a clown around the Royal Mile. Your willingness to play along, to stand out from the crowd, to offer a kindness, is constantly in question.

At points, the experience is downright humiliating, and it’s most potent when you feel the eyes of onlookers boring holes in you. Here your behaviour feels under active public scrutiny. In fact, given the evident construction of the event, every choice you make feels under inspection. Knowing you’re opposite actors means knowing you’re on show. The pressure, therefore, is to go along with the game; to offer an equally constructed version of yourself by breathing deeply and sucking up the punishment. You empty your pockets into the hands of a ‘tramp,’ model with extra ease in a charity shop and readily carry books or hand over cigarettes to a ‘panicked student.’

The moral kicker, therefore, is in the difference between your behaviour within and without of the piece. Would you have acted likewise in an everyday encounter? Only once do the two coincide, when the show disguises itself well enough to pass for normal life. Here one is left alone for the first time, stranded in public, vulnerable, waiting for something extraordinary to pick you up and take you to the next destination. What happens is so entirely embedded in the situation that it’s easily missed and - as I did - uncharitably dismissed. Reader, at this point, I said no and, such was my conscience on realising, my subsequent yeses were said with five times the enthusiasm.

This is well-meaning theatre with a real world effect. It is an intervention smuggled under the guise of entertainment and you’ll come away with newfound good intentions. To pass off a moral lecture with humour and flair is an admirable feat, even if You Once Said Yes is more naïve than it likes to believe.


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