Ah, the beauty of remote theatre…. this week I was able to watch a very interesting one-act play at the Dunedin Fringe from the comfort of my laptop. Yes, that Dunedin, in NZ.The play is Time For Tea, written by Lita Doolan, a previous winner of the Oxford Playhouse playwriting competition.
Time for Tea is set in 2002, during the fire in the Cowgate area in Edinburgh which obliterated significant buildings in the Grass Market and took 80 firefighters over 50 hours to put out (but thankfully nobody died). It destroyed The Guilded Balloon, a much-loved venue for that other Fringe. The play drops in on the lives of three people caught up in the mayhem: there’s Mila (Abbi Douetil); Max (Daniel Grice); and Emily (Meriel Plummer). They all speak like oral histories recorded by Studs Terkel, not with American accents and, more significantly, without Scottish brogues, too.
Mila is a teenager, cut adrift from her mother and abusive stepfather, wandering about Edinburgh, getting into mischief and looking for a bed for the night. She keeps a diary, and is trying to contact her brother. Max is an ex-reporter, down on his luck too and now working as a moped-riding Delverooist. He knows the rough sleepers in the Grass Market and spots Mila escaping from the fire area, but is prevented from following. Where is she and is she safe? Emily is equally chaotic, just now on the phone to the bank, asking unsuccessfully for a loan for a mortgage, staring down the barrel of a council house waiting list, observing the fire and thinking about her abusive partner.
It’s an interesting snapshot of three challenged lives, and it's also a reflection of dysfunctional pre-Covid Britain, well observed and succinctly written, and it has a memorable impact. The three actors present the work convincingly: they are real people in a real emergency, so I wanted to know what happened to them next. It works brilliantly as a quintessential Fringe piece; all we lacked were the sounds of sirens, the crackle of wood burning and the smell of smoke.