At the Fringe, the pursuit of positive reviews is much like the great California Gold Rush. There are scores of eager, optimistic theater people luring into Edinburgh, each pushing a show like a big covered wagon, each wielding press releases and reviewer invitations like pick-axes and shovels, all of them dreaming of striking the motherlode, which in this case is a four-star or five-star review from one or all of the biggest media outlets in town.
But as in the days of the 49ers, there’s only so much of that critical gold to go around (even with local media outlets and newspapers adding dozens of writers to their ranks for the festival), and then there’s the old problem of different people having different tastes.
And the unpredictability of those darn stars.
“It’s a three star review,” admitted one actor in a Guys-and-Dolls-style suit, handing me a flyer for his Chicago-based improv show, “but it reads like a four!”
There are dozens of newspapers from all over the UK, represented with their own squads of reviewers, and then there are blogs site, websites and radio and television stations, all of them eagerly seeking out the show they can name (hopefully becoming the first to do so) as the best unexpected find of the festival.
And then there are the other performers. It is not uncommon for one theater troupe to see another troupe’s show, in exchange for which, the visited troupe feels responsible for seeing the visiting troupe’s show, and in both cases, there is the chance that someone will visit the Fringe website and leave an audience review.
And it all matters.
Because you never know when the right good review will be seen by the right two or three patrons, and an avalanche of interest can be pushed into motion. Because the Gold Rush vibe isn;t just for the performers. The patrons too, by the thousands, are all out there looking for signs that will point them to the next real;ly great show.
And that show could be anywhere.
Because at the Fringe, good little shows are hiding EVERYWHERE.
So how did ‘Wretch Like Me’ do in the race for good reviews?
Below are snippets from the reviews we got from websites, newspapers, audience members, and one very creative other performer, whose entertainingly devilish review I reprint at the end in full.
Over the course of slightly more than an hour, Templeton takes the audience through the story of his teenage and early adult years, focusing on how his commitment to a particularly unthinking type of Christianity affected his sense of self-worth. It all began with Mrs Hunt at primary (“elementary”) school, who capitalised on Templeton’s loneliness, and it all ended with a dramatic departure from Happy Chapel and fall-out with the acid-tripping Rev. Dude.
Templeton’s selectiveness is thankfully not so acute as for him to leave out certain stories that are truly delightful, if a tad tangential, such as that of his ex-girlfriend, who considered herself a martyr for wetting her trousers (“pants”).
Wretch Like Me forcefully conveys what can happen when religion takes too firm a grip on an impressionable young mind, and this – the journalistic aspect of the show – is very impressive.
Joy, Templeton long believed, cannot be found outside Jesus; nearly killing yourself through fasting brings you to the face of God; masturbation is no sin so long as you do not think of sex while you do it; praying for help whether to choose chips (“fries”) or onion rings is an acceptable thing to do in the queue in a fast food restaurant.
All this nonsense Templeton was devoutly subject to during his youth – the flower of life. It must take considerable courage to admit publicly to having believed such rubbish, and it can only be a good thing for the world that such real-life stories are publicised.
A good standard of acting—which makes it easy to distinguish between the various characters Templeton plays during the show—combined with material that is simultaneously comic and deeply serious, goes to make Wretch Like Me a definite must-see at this year’s Fringe.
Templeton can also sing Amazing Grace backwards.
Wretch Like Me (Or How I Was Saved From Being Saved)
The set and costume are simple . . . but on the whole, it’s David Templeton’s charisma that sustains the audience. Over the course of the one-man-play, a young David describes his encounters with Mrs Hunt (aka The Jesus Lady), Righteous Rick, Cindy (who sends an air kiss to the sky everytime she mentions Jesus), and an ex-surfer druggie named Rev. Dude, who discovered Christianity in a tent in Hawai. Templeton switches skillfully between these characters.
The characterisation of organised religion is hilarious at times: praying in a Burger King, Holy Communion performed with a PB&J sandwich, and interpretations of scripture that condemn mainstream radio in unexpected ways.
However, what I engaged with the most is the struggle with self-hatred. Templeton crucifies himself: lying on the floor in a cross position, singing I hate myself to the tune of Amazing Grace.
This is sure to resonate with anyone who suffered from teenage angst.
There’s also puppets, a fantastic critique of ‘speaking in tongues’, three baptisms, fasting, a caring mum, a modern day martyrdom and a lesson in finding the perfect hedge to hide from school bullies. Though the premise of a one-man show about religion might promise to be restrictive to a particular audience, I don’t think that’s the case. This is a show for anyone who’s ever hated themselves, for anyone who was unpopular in school, for anyone who’s flirted with religion, or flirted with atheism.
In other words, it’s a show for everyone.
THE story of how a person becomes totally devoted to, and then totally jaded about, the American Evangelical Christian movement is inherently interesting. This show gives a real insight into what attracts young people to this type of faith—an important story to tell. The material is compelling. If you would like to know the inner workings of the American Evangelical movement, then it is well worth a look.
Review: Wretch Like Me
Storyteller Tim Ralphs and the talking serpent he suspects is The Devil attend David Templeton’s Wretch like me (or How I was saved from being saved.)
TIM: This is a storytelling show in which Templeton talks about his lonely childhood and how he was increasingly sucked into the Evangelical Christianity in his teens. He does a good job of painting himself as the “wretch” from the hymn Amazing Grace and then explores the theme of salvation, his role in perpetuating the semi-abusive messages of fundamentalist Christianity and the crisis of faith that lead to him breaking away and finding his own path.
THE DEVIL: And puppetry.
TIM: Yeah, he does talk about how nobody likes a puppeteer. This was a wondrous tragi-comedy, ultimately uplifting but, by God, David puts you through an emotional ringer to get there. Templeton is very skilled at his craft. There are lovely little touches, the salamander that becomes a metaphor, the soft reinforcement of the lamb imagery. And his characterisation is phenomenal. So many of the people in the story are slightly blissed-out Californians and yet David portrays each one as distinct and fully developed: Reverend Dude, Righteous Rick the leader of the school bible club and so many more. I had a chat with him afterwards about the evolution of the show and his quest to find a Director that got what he was trying to do. All very interesting stuff.
THE DEVIL: …………….
TIM: Hey, what’s up with you today? You’re being very quiet.
THE DEVIL: Conflict of interest. I have a cameo in this story. I appear as a talking fly in the second act.
Tell them about how you cried.
TIM: Oh there were tears. It is the mark of great personal storytelling that it goes beyond the confessional and anecdotal and instead touches something universal, something that might be called archetypal. I can’t say for sure how well Wretch like me manages that, but I found this story deeply personally affecting. Perhaps that has something to do with my own spiritual journey. It’s been exactly a year since I was ordained as a Minister. I’ve known plenty of people who have been deeply hurt by religious institutions and Wretch like me resonated keenly. But more than weep, I really wanted to dance. If I’d been a shade less inhibited, I’d have been up at the end dancing in the aisles as Templeton sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of Springsteen’s When I’m out on the street.. I was filled with ecstatic joy.
THE DEVIL: Aw. Would you like a hug?
TIM: Yeah. Yeah, that would be nice.
THE DEVIL: Then go find someone with arms.
Tim Ralphs is a storyteller and his show of urban devilry Rebranding Beelzebub is on every night from 2 August 2014 to 24 August 2014 at 9:50pm in The Banshee Labyrinth. A PBH free fringe performance – you only have to pay what you think the Devil is due.