With the loss of the Forest Fringe as an important space for experimental and adventurous work, it is heartening to see The Biscuit Factory emerging as something of a new Leith base. Here it provides the perfect space for this new show from Scottish company Creative Electric, Desperation Bingo.
As the audience enters the bingo hall, they are welcomed warmly: pens are handed out and a bar proffering cocktails stands near the entrance. The interior has been designed to give a glitzy if ramshackle bingo-night feel. The hosts smoothly balance showbiz-style chattiness with sharp put-downs and double entendre. An apparently traditional game of bingo begins.
But there’s a twist – more than one twist, actually – as the game gets underway. In a set-up that initially appears to critique the exploitation involved in many reality and game TV shows, this bingo battle is between three contestants. Heather, clearly the focus, needs the money for her ill mother, not the holiday that the hosts pushily suggest she wants. As the numbers are called out, the contestants race to the microphone, fighting to make their voices heard. When they reach it, they blurt out soundbites about their lives, but these must be related to the number called. As Heather progresses through the show, she gets closer to winning the money, but can only succeed if she manages to show that she is deserving in a certain way – one which requires reducing her mother’s life to numbers. As time runs out, it becomes clear that this dehumanising, box-ticking exercise mirrors the bureaucratic process people go through to claim government assistance. Actor Roz McAndrew is absolutely brilliant at capturing Heather’s vulnerability and honesty as she tries and fails to make her narrative fit the system.
It’s a transfixing show, filled with tension and sharp edges, which becomes something else entirely in the final minutes. With a swift political twist which incorporates and accuses the audience, the elaborate set-up of the show falls away entirely to leave a clear message. Heather turns her desperation on the audience and demands their attention while detailing the negligence and cruelty of the government toward claimants of disability benefit, connecting abstract statistics to real people who have been pushed to suicide in an upsetting, urgent monologue.
The show seems to finish abruptly after the climax, but this is apt, as it leaves the audience still reeling, made to reflect on what they’re heard. Everyone is encouraged to take leaflets, inform themselves about the situation and how local organisations are attempting to help. It’s a simple, unapologetically political ending to one of the rawest and best fringe shows this year.