Am I Dead Yet?; The Paradise Project

Matt Trueman reviews: Am I Dead Yet? (3 stars) | The Paradise Project (2 stars)

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Published 29 Aug 2015

Am I dead yet? Is it over? Can we all go home now? Are we done here? Is it safe to come out?

This has been the longest Fringe in living memory. I know negativity’s not the done thing. I know we’re supposed to be all, like, "EDINBURGH FRINGE: WHOOP WHOOP", but the truth is that 2015 has not been a good vintage. In fact, it’s been distinctly average: a sea of mediocrity; a trudge through sludge. There’s not much bad work out there (providing you know the places to avoid), but there’s not that much really good stuff either. It’s all much of a muchness. Seventy-plus shows in, I’d only champion 10 at most. Usually it’s easy to find double that; maybe more.

Maybe I’ve just been looking in the wrong places. Maybe I’ve just been a massive grump all month. Maybe you’ve had more luck than me and maybe it’s been better in the blue pages next door where the comedians hang out. Maybe, when Simon McBurney arrives on day three and delivers a once-in-a-decade Complicite show like The Encounter, it becomes harder to get excited about an emerging company from Tring or A.N. Other performance lecture about taking care of one another. Maybe it’s George Osborne’s fault and no one’s had the time or resources to really nail their show down. It’s probably that. Fucking George Osborne.

Whatever the reason, kneel by your beds tonight and pray to the gods of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase. The biennial festival-in-a-festival rides into town this week with 30 new shows and a load of hangers-on in tow. It’s the Fringe equivalent of a deus ex machina and it might just save us all from mediocrity. Pray, people, pray.

It hasn’t started brilliantly. Unlimited Theatre’s Am I Dead Yet? feels like one of those half-cooked shows we’re blaming on the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Chris Thorpe and Jon Spooner want us to talk about death and, over the course of an hour, proceed to say little more on the subject than that.

A kind of cabaret of death, with songs and stories and sciencey bits, it kicks off with two men in their forties in their pants. You see two middle-aged bodies showing life’s wear and tear—the bald bits, the paunches, the bags round the eyes—and you know exactly why they’ve been preoccupied with the subject. Life begins at 40? Pah.

For the most part, it revolves around two fragmented stories: one about two policemen picking up body parts after a suicide on the rail tracks; the other about a young girl, trapped beneath the ice and drowned – technically dead, but, because her body temperature has dropped so significantly, only temporarily. 

The argument—such as there is one—sits in the interplay of these two stories. As medical science advances, so our control over death increases, and it’s quite conceivable that, in the not so distant future, we’ll have to actively choose to die. Time we started talking about it, in other words.

This isn’t necessarily the right conversation, though, being far too happy to skim the surface and skirt what they call the last remaining taboo. They muse on male suicide rates and your chances of surviving a cardiac arrest, then bash out a lovely little improvised, crowd-sourced song on the subject. It’s scatty, scruffy stuff: a magazine show about mortality.

Tonally, however, it’s neatly balanced: Thorpe’s morose and Spooner’s puppyish. The crisp, Spartan writing style—pure Thorpe— sits well with an eager-beaver curiosity—Spooner’s—that’s always out to cram one more stat into the mix. With a CPR demonstration mid-show, this is theatre that could genuinely save lives – and how many shows can say that?

The Paradise Project wants to save the world – or at least, it wants to start a new one, a better one. Actually, why stop short there? Third Angel and Mala Voadora want perfection. Paradise on earth. Utopia.

A rotating cast of performers—always one male, one female—play Person A and Person B. Think Adam and Eve 2.0, charged with founding an ideal society that keeps all its members happy at all times. Having built themselves shelter, sourced food and laid out a month’s supply of water, they need to agree on some rules. So, is killing ever allowed? What about stealing?

In no time at all, they’re onto meta questions of methodology. How to settle disagreements? How to make democracy workable with only two voters? Majority rules, second preferences, ten votes apiece. It's pertinent given crises of democracy around Europe and across Britain. It nudges up against Scottish independence and electoral reform.

Trouble is, it’s unfeasibly dry – almost theoretical theatre. That white graph-paper room stands in for the world like a mathematician’s model and, surprise surprise, all A and B can think to do is make a model of their own. And so on, ad infinitum. That makes The Paradise Project entirely illustrative, dragging out a few ideas into a full hour’s ‘drama’, but forgetting the humour, momentum and flavour that makes drama a delight. Its paradise is lifeless. Again: is it over? Am I dead yet?