Review: Jacob’s Ladder – Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Jacob’s Ladder **** (4 stars)

Underbelly, Cowgate – 11:10AM (60 mins). 5th — 29th August. £6.50-£9.50


Yesterday I went to see my first show of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2010…  at it was Jacob’s Ladder which was bloody awesome (however not in any way related to the 1990 Tim Robbins film of the same name).

On paper, everything about this play is “young”: The cast boast a couple of Fringe newbies; the production company has been birthed for the specific purpose of bringing this play to light (although under the experienced hands of Sam Hansford); and the website for the production describes it as having originated in the musings of “exciting young playwright Emily Moir”. However, these cursory observations are instantly forgotten the moment the action commences in this exuberant performance.

Admittedly, a play which begins with the small cast of six innocently formulating the specifics of a devil worshiping cult could hardly go wrong in my book. The Monty Python-esque logic of “What do cults do when they aren’t worshiping Satan?” – “They go in for animal sacrifice don’t they?” – “That falls under the worship, I reckon” – “Well, they must do a certain amount of farming… they have to take care of the animals they sacrifice” – “Does anyone here know how to keep animals?” – “I keep bees….” – had me squirming in my seat with joy, whilst at the same time provoking many tangential forays into the more philosophical crevices of my mind. A major achievement for a play at 11.10 in the morning!

Although nothing much happens – with the entire drama unfolding in front of a garden shed in the grounds of a sociopathic, wannabe cult-leader’s country home – this is theatrical social commentary at its best: think “Lost in Translation” rather than the stereotypically artsy 4.48 Psychosis. Whilst scattered with comedic gems, the script courses seamlessly through all colours of the emotional spectrum, and tackles all manner of subject matter – from pregnancy and sexuality, to the similarities between the British penal system, and the phenomenon of boarding school – and leaves the audience wanting more when the play comes to its all-too-abrupt end. Disappointingly, one couldn’t help but feel that the writer panicked about the time allocation in the venue, and signed off before the  story reached its natural conclusion – a shame considering the running time was only 50 minutes, instead of the advertised hour. However, this in no way detracts from the power of the piece as a whole.

All of the performances on display were of a very high standard, and every cast member should be thoroughly proud of what they have achieved. Ed Sheridan was particularly affecting as the awkward and creepily convincing cult leader (Jake), and at numerous points brought elements of Hamlet and Shylock into the mix – a testament, perhaps, to his work with the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Company. And in strikingly different, yet equally powerful performances, Sophie Pemberton (Sal) and Emily Rose Hay (Mary) confidently articulated many unspoken, yet real and significant aspects of female sexuality, despite their young age – “I dangle the carrot because, frankly, I don’t know what to do with the stick” summing up Mary’s dilemma succinctly.

Naturally this production is not without its negatives. At times the inevitable shoehorning of monologue after monologue started to grate, and some of the caricatured characters on display rivaled the work of the Royal Mile’s finest. And although inevitable during the Fringe, the uncomfortable seats, ludicrously shallow rake and inappropriate music drifting in at points from adjacent venues did somewhat spoil the atmosphere in places. Be that as it may, the many pros of this production far outweigh these minor cons, and I would thoroughly recommend that you take in Jacob’s Ladder with your morning Starbucks.

If there’s any justice in this cruel world, tickets for this production will be very hard to come by. Have a good fringe, guys!  (And  I know a good joiner, if you want to get the shed door fixed…)

(I have also posted this review on Broadway Baby)

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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