The opening night of Manipulate at the Traverse, an occasion that, perhaps more than any other annual Edinburgh festival, transports the audience far away from everyday stresses and strains, tensions and traumas of everyday life. Tonight, we arrive on the deck of a small boat, drifting on an lonely sea, brought here by Tortoise in a Nutshell. A fisherman sits, surrounded by a scant circle of possessions. He gathers himself, walks to the edge and prepares to leap into the waves. After all, who is there to stop him? The answer appears from below deck – an excitable fish-woman, here to remind the man that there is more to life than suffering.
The visual effects and props are stunning in their simplicity. The sea is represented by a soft white sheet, hung at the back and on the base of the stage and reflected beneath by a mirrored floor. It ripples, soars and swells, often in tandem with dramatic tension. The boat that is stranded is a child’s plaything – a paper-folded model come to life, and just as fragile. The puppets that amuse the fisherman in his solitude are apparently carved from newspaper and brim with expression and life.
The colours, too, are sharp, clear and joyful. A rainbow explodes when the fish leads the fisherman in a disco dance-off – pinks and reds and yellows and blues, swirled together like a funky rainbow. The glittering turquoise scales shimmer and slide, slowly fading to black as the fish sheds skin and becomes something more like a human companion. It’s a visually stunning tableau, rich and vibrant.
It is a shame then that the substance of the short play – an exploration of loneliness, human contact and how the two so often fail to meet – doesn’t hold our attention. A lack of dialogue – a deliberate choice – doesn’t help. The fish is sometimes joyous and gleeful, but also consciously ‘wacky’ and irritating. The set-up feels overly contrived, or underdeveloped, or possibly both. There is some claw-back with the ending – an expression of raw uncomfortable pain and violence that morphs into something very tender – but it’s not quite enough to make up for a sustained lack of interest.