As anyone who’s been to an Edinburgh Festival Fringe can attest, word of mouth is crucial to a show’s success. There’s a reason Vivarium has been hot on the lips of many this year. Bruised Sky Productions’s new play written and directed by Don McCamphill and performed by John Travers presents a gloomy tale set on a council estate in Northern Ireland of an ex-con dad who reaches out to his mouthy young son (both impressively portrayed by Travers) by way of social media and the relationship they build together. It’s a dark and tonal journey that is sure to stay long on the mind.
Vivarium is an extremely well made piece of confessional storytelling that is simply must see.
McCamphill’s writing is immediately sharp as thirteen year-old Euan takes the stage and launches a flurrying account of a school day at the audience; his ranting recurs enjoyably throughout the play, evidencing the piece’s subtle sense of humour as well as the character’s naivety and blind optimism. Soon after we meet Paul, Euan’s recently released, drug-addled dad; the story becomes told by the two in tandem as they trade off the stage with lighting changes that feel natural and seamless. The characters nicely offset each other in their shared state of oddity. What’s refreshing is that McCamphill at no point makes special effort to make either especially likeable.
Travers is confident and commanding in his technically detailed performance, although it could be said that at moments he felt too caught in the specifics of technique. While his movement is largely static and lacking in dynamism, he succeeds in maintaining an active body. The inner monologues of the characters are marvellously captured in addition to their outward expressions. However, problematically, at times they felt somewhat chained to the ground; they could have been taken further but instead it felt like McCamphill and Travers were holding back, and thus we as the viewers held back with them - despite Travers’ otherwise expert engagement with the audience. Attempts to create ambience and foreboding through breaks featuring audio tracks just feel misplaced and mess with the piece’s rhythm. The momentum and energy are not varied and this effects pacing and our attention as the piece takes time to find new gears to shift to. For this reason, the narrative’s ‘hook’ is suggestively faint for much of the play.
But the most significant issue here is the believability of the emotional resonance that the piece later shifts to. The emotional arc is at times clear as day, and at times not. This means that when the play reaches its dramatic climax, instead of feeling solidly grounded, it almost just happens. This is a terribly small problem that will not scream out to most viewers, but it is a small detail that halts the play from reaching the highest of heights. This in its place, Vivarium is an extremely well made piece of confessional storytelling that is simply must see – as well as proof that you should believe what you overhear at the Fringe.