thu 23/05/2024

Edinburgh Festival 2018 reviews: Underground Railroad Game / On the Exhale | reviews, news & interviews

Edinburgh Festival 2018 reviews: Underground Railroad Game / On the Exhale

Edinburgh Festival 2018 reviews: Underground Railroad Game / On the Exhale

Racial politics and gun culture dissected in two provocative shows at the Traverse

Scott R Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in the furious, merciless Underground Railroad GameBen Arons Photography


Underground Railroad Game ★★★★ 

The game of the show’s title is a fun educational exercise on the US Civil War devised by Teacher Caroline and Teacher Stuart at Hanover Middle School, with the aim of bringing alive the flight of slaves from the south to the north. Can the kids playing Unionist soliders move the slave dolls between the school’s safe-house boxes, without the fugitives being captured by the Confederates?

The title also refers, perhaps, the far more adult games taking place between the two teachers as they play out their (or, perhaps more correctly, Teacher Stuart’s) sexual fantasies of slave auctions, intimate examinations, and compliant, balloon-skirted slave women seemingly excited by the interest of white men.

And, let’s not forget, it’s also the game taking place between performers Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard on the one hand, and their audience on the other – how far viewers are happy to be prodded and provoked, how they’ll react when they’re brought up short and faced with their own racial and sexual prejudices.

Underground Railroad Game is a furious, merciless, restless dissection of racial politics, whose main target is middle-class, white, liberal charity, and the expectations of gratitude or reward for simple tolerance. Its two magnificent actors slide adroitly between roles as scenes unexpectedly shift their contexts – but also, more straightforwardly, with some pitch-perfect put-downs and asides as the over-enthusiastic schoolteachers.

Most impressive, however, are the show’s sheer scope and its breathless, restless energy. It’s a show to make your skin crawl, but it’s a hell of a ride.

On the Exhale at the Edinburgh Fringe

On the Exhale ★★★★ 

Increasingly paranoid about mass campus shootings, a college lecturer surreptitiously installs a mirror to see who’s approaching down her corridor, and takes to working with her study door closed. Then the worst happens – but not to her. In dealing with the aftermath, she experiences a strange kind of conversion, and the force that caused her intolerable loss begins to exert its own seductive pull.

Martín Zimmerman’s taut solo play is a timely study of gun violence, but one that takes a rewardingly unexpected, unpredictable trajectory. Its closing moments, focused around revenge – of a sort – might bring us back into more familiar territory, but its protagonist’s apparent obsession with assault rifles, shooting ranges and the feeling of overwhelming power they carry brings a provocative perspective on its harrowing story of loss and grief.

Polly Frame gives a crisp, clear, sharply etched performance of remarkable restraint in Christopher Haydon’s fiercely focused production, surrounded by stuttering neon tubes in Frankie Bradshaw’s elegant staging. First performed in the US in 2017, On the Exhale risks simply reconfirming the already embedded beliefs of a Fringe audience, but it’s an urgent, unsettling dissection of gun culture all the same.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters