Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Dumbstruck, Zoo Venues

Review: Dumbstruck, Zoo Venues

Published in The Scotsman, 15.08.2013

One of the pleasures of coming back to the Fringe year on year is watching as young companies develop. Fine Chisel’s fourth Edinburgh outing sees them find their voice with Dumbstruck, a layered consideration of long-range communication that is delivered with a delicate, diligent panache.

It all starts with a whale singing at a 52-hertz frequency, much higher than average and well within human hearing. On a listening station just off Alaska, after four years of near-total isolation, research scientist Ted starts talking back – a hydrophone translating his life story into underwater sound waves.

There is heartbreak behind his hermit state. Sixteen years earlier, in 1963, he fell for his PhD student Fiona, helping her to set up a pirate radio station, Vox Radio, in a network of caves. With a playlist aimed at a young generation and an increasingly dissident political agenda, it is not long before someone starts jamming the signal. The question is who?

A Complicite-like weave of a show that ebbs and flows between the present and memories – a form of transmission in their own right – Dumbstruck also zooms back to Ted’s childhood conversations with his uncle, Mal, a priest losing connection with his faith.

It is the ideas – the thematic undercurrents – that really sing. Whales communicate over thousands of miles; hours separate call and response. Dumbstruck wonders whether humans do likewise, be that through broadcasts beamed around the world or books that preserve ideas like insects in amber.

Against our world of superfast broadband and instant messaging, maybe we could learn from the whales. Language might make us human, but so, too, does our sense of reflection.

Impressively, the narrative doesn’t show its stitching, though in the hour they have, Fine Chisel can only hop between ideas like lilypads. There is no blubber here, but with half an hour more, they could shape the strands into something singular. A gloriously analogue staging conjures locations with chalk drawings and captures both the rush and reclusion of research, and a brilliant live jazz soundtrack energises a thoughtful and involving hour.

Photograph: Owain Shaw

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