Venue: Greenside @ Infirmary Street
Tailored to fit into a small room in which the audience is never more than 3 metres from the actors, Ashes Afar is a small pocket of understated minimalist theatre tucked away in a festival with a reputation for extravagance. It centres on two lovers: both immigrants hailing from Ireland and Romania respectively, who attempt to scrape a living out of London town – before it scrapes the life out of them.
Crissy O Donovan and Liviu Romanescu give brilliantly coarse performances and create a clever balance between their characters as they chronicle an entirely believable relationship: from the earliest moments of nervous giggling, to the inexplicable aggression that come with 6 years of living with the same person – one who swears too much, and one who still can’t pronounce the other’s name correctly. The small space does them justice, enabling the audience to catch every tiny detail of the script as it plays out over the faces of the actors. Yet that same small space (in true Fringe style), also forces the 2nd row to tilt their heads at strange angles if they want to see, a problem which is worsened, if the person in front has a real penchant for repeatedly shifting around (I’m not bitter).
Even if the acting is at times slightly eclipsed, there’s always the dialogue to listen out for, which skips along nicely and includes moments of light humour: “Fuck me” says Aine, out of despair the first time the pair meet. Mihail innocently responds “okay!” as he mistakes expletive for invite, not yet fluent in the language. Disappointingly, the play makes little further attempt to delve into the cultural differences lying between the pair, although Mihail’s speech about having imagined a more colourful life in England, must speak for the countless number of migrants who do make it beyond border control.
The greatest irritation is a consequence of the key plot motivator: Aine’s loss of memory which clicks in as something of a lightswitch moment. She retreats to the curtain corner as relationship and job pressures pile up; when she turns to face Mihail again, everything from the last 6 years has been miraculously forgotten and with very little being explained, the audience is kept somewhat in the dark as to what exactly has happened. Both characters then back-peddle to confused and disordered moments of their relationship as Mihail tries to return his partner to her senses, or more directly: her sense of self. As a result, Ashes Afar often sits uncomfortably between quotidian realism, marked by cigarette shop-dashes or flying accusations, and the unsettling surrealism characterised by this change. However, there are embers of clever ambiguity; the dialogue slips and repeats itself and events are given a new significance – occasionally put out by several melodramatic lines that dampen the performance.
Ashes Afar is stirring and subtle, having the power to move, if the audience is willing to work hard to bridge the gaps. It has less edge and flair than most performances at the Fringe and while this results in a welcome breather from the excess of the festival, the play doesn’t quite make a lasting impression amid an abundance of louder and more polished productions.