True story, bro. Or is it? In a Fringe full of first-hand accounts, it’s those that toy with fact and fiction that fly. Step onto a stage and your truth becomes a tale.
Did James Rowland really pinch his best mate’s corpse from a funeral parlour and send him off down the Thames in a flaming dinghy stolen from the Victoria Park boating lake? Truth is, I just don’t know.
Nor does it matter. Whatever the facts, there’s truth in Team Viking: real grief, still raw; real heart, still healing; and a reminder that life really is for the living.
Stood onstage in a funeral suit in dire need of a dry clean, Rowland’s an instant mate of a performer; a beardy teddy bear of a bloke, all gentle mischief. His story starts at an off-the-peg funeral—his dad’s—and ends at a send-off that’s as spectacular as it is specific. As kids, inspired by the Tony Curtis film, he and Tom would play Vikings, so when, aged 25, his partner-in-pillaging is taken down by cardiac sarcoma—cancer of the heart—he demands a funeral to fit.
Tom was life, basically. He was piggyback races through Hackney late at night, hauling his mates on to the next pub. He was chat-up lines at funerals and hospital break outs for drinks next door; laughter that lugs a drip to the bar. Rowland’s love for him, his awe at this boundless vitality, is plain to see. So is his grief. Even four years on, his voice still cracks on occasion. Between segments of the story, he puts together a jaunty, Pythonesque number on a loop station. Singing such life-affirming jollity—"Let’s die idiots together”— becomes harder and harder.
Detailed enough to be credible, outlandish enough to dismiss outright, Rowland’s tale is beautifully calibrated. His persona too: soft and sweet, immensely likeable, but with traces of the laddish pub legend as well.
Because this isn’t just a heartfelt tribute to friendship, nor a plea to pillage life for all it’s worth, it’s also a quiet critique of masculinity and maturity. Tom’s boyish bravura, so nonchalantly, enviably alpha, raises the odd eyebrow, and the story sloshes with a certain (male) sentimentality. While Rowland wallows, bulk-buying baked beans and shutting the world out, it’s his other bezzie Sarah who picks him up and pushes ahead with the plan. That, as they say, is what friends are for.
Some friends are for life, some for a few hours. Yinka Kuitenbrouwer has a file full of them: notes on each of the one hundred or so people and families that have taken her in to their homes. She wants to remember them all in turn – her small way of repaying their hospitality.
Inviting us into a driftwood shed, Kuitenbrouwer makes us feel instantly at home. Tea’s dished out; biscuits passed round. Decorum over décor, every time. Sat behind a small desk, she recounts time spent with strangers, in their living rooms and kitchens, over food and drink, stories, jokes and memories. She pegs their photo to her forehead; a projector screen of her memories. There are housemates-turned-lovers, artists-turned-squattors, families and friends and farmers.
Permissive and generous, One Hundred Homes reflects on personal space. Each individual home—big or small, smart or bare—reflects its owners, but they all serve the same purpose and, at a moment of such global displacement, there’s an elegiac element at play. Between accounts, Kuitenbrouwer weaves a web of connections, overlaps between distant strangers that counter social atomisation, but she celebrates diversity too. It’s a small show, more reflective than relevatory, but one you could happily live in forever.
Karen Houge was taken in as well, only her hosts had no home to host her. Last summer, the 26-year-old Norwegian joined a group of Syrian refugees on their journey from Greece towards Germany. She queued with them for days at the Macedonian border, got picked up by Croatian police and talked her way into an off-road mafia pizza parlour in Serbia. Starting out with no food of her own, completely unprepared, she was given rations by a Syrian family.
Houge was supposed to be rescuing them, helping them to the heart of Europe: “The world of opportunities.” Cocking a wry eyebrow at hashtag activism, she explains that she initially went to Greece for a good tan and a great Facebook profile picture. On the beaches, sunbathing on a bed of life-vests, she finds good looking young men in "TEAM HUMANITY" T-shirts, drinking protein shakes at breakfast buffets and posing for press photographers.
Still in its infancy, very much a work-in-progress, Undercover Refugee is onto something, but yet to find its form or its finish. The faux-naif tone means Houge’s tale seems tall one moment and truthful the next. You’re never quite sure whether to take it on trust – a register that reveals how reliant we are on media narratives. This one disrupts it. It tells a different truth.