Edinburgh Fringe: A round-up of shows at Paines Plough – Sticks and Stones, Island Town, The Political History of Smack and Crack

The Independent / Lyn Gardner

Sticks and Stones (★★★☆☆), Island Town (★★★★☆), Blackthorn (★★★★☆), The Political History of Smack and Crack (★★★★☆).


Paines Plough’s Roundabout tent in the Summerhall courtyard can be both the most exhilarating and exposing space on the Fringe. Its circular democratic design means every single seat is a good one, and even in the back row you feel as if you can reach out and touch the performers.

That intimacy can be invigorating and work well when audience interaction is involved, and it was a bonus for the stellar hit Every Brilliant Thing which began on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014. But the small circular playing space – which doesn’t allow for scenery and props – shines a harsh light on acting and writing and can test the ingenuity of directors.

Director Stef O’Driscoll rises to the challenge in Vinay Patel’s Sticks and Stones, a piece in which virtual signalling becomes a choreographed dance as the characters twist and jerk their limbs in order to demonstrate their self-righteousness.

Jack Wilkinson, Katherine Pearce and Charlotte O’Leary in ‘Sticks and Stones’

B (Katherine Pearce) is a single mother who tells her daughter we must use language with sensitivity but who doesn’t take her own advice. B is desperate to finally secure the job security that her rolling contract denies her. But when during a presentation she makes a joke using a word – never revealed –that is deemed offensive, she is plunged into an increasingly Kafkaesque scenario. One which quite honestly just feels like Twitter on any normal day.

Vinay Patel’s play operates like a contained high-stakes farce in which posturing and privilege are both neatly exposed, reputation can be destroyed in the time it takes for you to open your mouth, public shaming is the new norm, and what were once the right words are suddenly very much the wrong ones.

Sticks and Stones suggests we must take care with words, but there appears to be nobody to take care of the bereft teenagers who live in Simon Longman’s Island Town, a dying rural outpost trapped in the middle of fields with a ring road as confining as any prison cell.

Kate (Katherine Pearce), Sam (Charlotte O’ Leary) and Pete (Jack Wilkinson) all dream of escape, but even the bus service has been cut, along with the fire station and all the jobs. Besides, Pete is busy wooing the checkout girl in the supermarket by buying more packs of sausages than he can possibly eat, and Sam has responsibilities, carrying her baby sister around in a bag for life to protect her from her parent’s violent rows.

Jack Wilkinson, Katherine Pearce and Charlotte O’Leary in ‘Island Town’

This is a play in which desperation and anger swirl around each other as it becomes clear how the decisions made far away in Westminster impact on the daily lives of those living hundreds of miles away, shrinking opportunity and shrivelling dreams. It is a play about what happens when grief for a life not lived turns to terrible anger.

Longman’s play charts an over-looked aspect of rural life, but Charley Miles’s two-hander Blackthorn is set in more familiar territory: a picture postcard Yorkshire village. This terrific debut play focusses on two unnamed protagonists – a boy and a girl (Charlotte Bate and Harry Egan) – who are the first to be born in the village for 20 years. They play together, fall in love but when she departs for university and he stays to work in agriculture it is as if a fissure opens up in their relationship. It’s one which is exacerbated by class and also a village in the process of change as the old people move out and the weekenders move in.

Miles’s not quite love story is directed with sensitivity and economy by Jacqui Honess-Martin and has an almost Chekhovian overtones as the protagonists decide whether they should stay or go. It feels like a play written straight from the heart and one which questions our and its characters’ relationship with the countryside and whether it is based on reality or nostalgia.

Charlotte Bate and Harry Egan in ‘Blackthorn’ (Richard Davenport)

At the start of the 1980s there were about 3,000 heroin addicts in the UK, most of them middle class and wealthy. Within the decade the influx of cheap heroin into cities, towns and housing estates across the UK ensured that around 330,000 were hooked.

How that happened is explored by Ed Edwards in The Political History of Smack and Crack. Not since Trainspotting has addiction been so entertaining. Edwards suggests that it was a mixture of the Thatcher government’s foreign policy combined with a desire after the 1981 riots to quell the working classes that led to the policies and inaction over drug dealing which ensured that the opium of the people was indeed opium.

This might be dry polemic, but Edwards cannily makes his story a human one, telling it through the eyes of two life-long addicts, Mandy (Eve Steele) and Neil (Neil Bell), Manchester residents whose personal histories are entwined with political history.

Cressida Brown’s production is a peach, Edwards treats his characters with both affection and dignity, and Steele and Bell bring Many and Neil so vividly to life as they struggle to survive that there is no chance the audience will judge – we only empathise.