TES (Underbelly, George Square : 5 – 31 Aug : 13.15 : 1hr 15 mins)

“Fantastic… exactly what the Fringe is all about.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Tess of the D’urbervilles reimagined in modern times. With a male hero. Set on a Newcastle council estate. Performed by one person. Oh, and it’s performance poetry. What could possibly go wrong?

You’ve got to take your hat off to writer and performer Steve Larkin just for the idea. It sounds daft, but TES is actually a very compelling story, that interprets enough of the original to make it easy to follow, but without going overboard by trying to shoehorn in every last detail. It’s stylish, it’s quirky, and the issues covered are bang up to date for an audience in 2015.

The show follows the story of Joe Taggart, who, we find out, is a descendent of Lord Byron. As part of a special programme in his school (he’s 14 when the show starts), he gets assigned a new English teacher, the alluring Alice Prycer-Fox, who encourages him to write poetry. However, after a dramatic liaison with her, he finds himself in prison and years later is having to rebuild his life as “Terry” in Leeds. We see Terry’s rise in fortune as a performance poet, and how he develops a relationship with a girl he meets at a recruitment agency. Of course, as this is a Hardy adaptation there are more twists and turns, and an unfortunate ending, but it’s a gripping story and deftly delivered.

It’s written with a real sense of rhythm, and its poetic nature (though not overt) gives it a sense of being a fairytale and having a moral tale. Indeed, many cultural quips and comments on consumerist society are well-placed and go to show the level of intelligence and care with which this piece is constructed.

While the writing is powerful, one of the real strengths of this show is Larkin’s energy as a performer, and his ability to jump between characters and create moods and tension very quickly. He excels further in the sections where, as Terry, he performs his original performance poetry, even getting the audience involved to chant along some lines with him. Larkin is in his element in these sections and commands the stage and the audience’s attention.

My only criticism was that it seemed a little rough around the edges – there could have been starker contrasts between some of the characters, while I also would have liked a slightly more impactful climax. Overall though, a fantastic risk-taking offering, and to me this kind of show is exactly what the Fringe is all about.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 15 August)