There is surely a rich vein of theatre in exploring why people choose, despite advice, to stay in dangerous areas affected by major natural disasters. “Centralia”, by Superbolt Theatre, never quite gets to grips with the question but its gentle examination of three Americans who remain in a condemned town provides a surprising number of laughs and some moments of well-observed tenderness.
A fire has burned in the coal mines which run under the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania for nearly forty years. Government relocation grants and toxic clouds of carbon monoxide have persuaded most of the residents to leave but an embattled few remain (this much, incredibly enough, is actually true). The three remaining inhabitants of Centralia, Jennifer (Maria Askew), Norman (Frode Gjerlow) and Alastair (Simon Maeder) have come to Edinburgh to publicise their story.
Most of the laughs come from intentionally gauche behaviour of the three Americans on tour. There’s no special insight in this, though the group’s insistence that they were delighted to be in ‘Edinburg’ [sic] brought laughs of recognition from the audience. In a Fringe where you could paper the Royal Mile with flyers from shows promising to expose the gritty side of prostitution, it’s rather nice to watch Ned-Flanders lookalike Norman try and fail to recreate popular tunes by clapping his hands. Askew, Gjerlow and Maeder did well to maintain this loveable naivety; towards the end, as they revealed the emotional costs of living in a ghost town, there was palpable sympathy from the audience.
Where the cast really distinguish themselves is in their exceptionally creative use of props. This was real theatre magic: two torches became a car negotiating a pot-holed road; an LP cover held in front of an actor’s face transformed her into the mayor. A sharp use of physical theatre helped to fill in the backstory of the town, though it was a pity that the characters’ motivation for remaining was never properly explored.
It is always difficult to end a piece like this where inventiveness has taken the place of a driving narrative. “Centralia” took the rather curious step of ending on a long interpretative mime. As one would expect from actors trained at the Jacques Lecoq Theatre School the mime is superbly executed but that doesn’t get around the awkward question of why? Up to this point this has been the tragicomic tale of three American eccentrics- why were they now writhing and contorting?
Centralia is a slow burn, which ends on an unfortunate fizzle. It merits seeing though for pure creative spark.