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Review: Bystanders (Summerhall, Edinburgh)

Homelessness theatre company Cardboard Citizens returns to the Fringe with a new show about the most vulnerable in society

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
© The Other Richard

Theatre company Cardboard Citizens returns to the Edinburgh Fringe with a new show that once again shines light on the little-heard stories of the homeless and the vulnerable. This time, it's a selection of tales which pose the question of how you or I might respond to someone in need. Let down by what you could call individual acts of unkindness, the humans in Bystanders need help at key moments, but definitely don't get it.

And they are all true stories, like the street-sleeping Polish guy who agrees to get a tattoo of a soon-to-be-married stag's postcode on his forehead in exchange for 100 euros. Or Vernon, the once-successful British boxer who, despite having grown up in the UK, spent 13 years stuck in Jamaica following a return to the country and a bout of living rough. Or the homeless man who was shot in the face with paint by an angry member of the public as he sat outside his local Tesco. You can google them all and they make for eye-watering reading. Each event took place within the last few years, and their connecting theme is how people – normal, real, everyday people – exploited, turned a blind eye or never lifted a finger.

Though it may sound it, it's not all doom and gloom and Adrian Jackson's four-person production does well to weave the stories so they connect beautifully. Bystanders uses a mixture of voice over, verbatim, video and movement to represent the tales and the performers are all excellent. We also get peeks of the real people behind the stories which humanises everything. There's humour and audience involvement and an interesting riff on what's ‘fake news' and what's not. It means that by the end, the truth of each of the situations is all the more shocking.

It's not all a finger-pointing exercise, or one in blaming or shaming – although it could easily have been. Instead it does what Cardboard Citizens has been doing since it began over 25 years ago. It reminds us that those on the fringes of our society – those who may cause 'trouble', who may make questionable decisions – might be struggling with hidden problems that the majority of us probably won't ever get close to understanding. And it challenges us to stop, think and try to put ourselves in their shoes. Bystanders is a lesson in empathy and we should all go and watch it.