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Review: [insert slogan here] (Zoo Charteris, Edinburgh Festival)

YESYESNONO returns to Edinburgh after the award-winning Five Encounters with a Site Called Craiglist in 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
[insert slogan here]
© Samantha Guess

Advertising is an art-form. There's magic in its manipulation: the way a great advert attaches feelings and values to a product, be it a cleaning fluid or a car. They transform objects so make us change our lives – albeit in material, not meaningful ways. Sam Ward's intricate staged essay wonders whether we might use that power not for profit, but for positive ends.

Aged eight, Ward was so taken by a Volvo commercial that he wrote to the company asking to appear in its next one. Two decades on, he's righting that dream by recreating that initial ad onstage: a couple dancing on a candlelit beach in front of a gleaming family hatchback.

Eliciting his audience's help, Ward sets the scene: cardboard boxes standing in for the car, LED candles adding atmosphere. As Ola Rae's soft electro score swims round the space, two strangers dance slowly arm-in-arm. A camera circles them in a slow caress. It's gorgeous: a sumptuous, simple image of love.

Really, Ward's chasing the feeling that first advert forged, and product-free, it seems newly profound. Over a playful, gently probing hour, [insert slogan here] exposes advertising's tropes and techniques – partly to derail them, partly to put them to better use. It's an attempt to divorce the aesthetics of advertising from the commercial content and, in showing us the mechanics of manipulation, registering their efficacy, Ward begs the question as to what else they might promote.

Treading a tightrope between scepticism and sincerity, the show offers a studious appreciation of advertising while cocking an eyebrow at its cynical ends. Stripping slogans out of context, Ward mines them for a meaning beyond base consumerism. "You can't live at all if you can't live fully now," runs one. "To feel, to really feel, is a rare thing these days," another.

His own theatre aspires to both those things, and, as in his first show Five Encounters on a Site Called Craigslist, Ward draws audience members into gentle conservations onstage with a real sense of care. Their responses as to what constitutes 'cool' or 'home' quietly unpick the efficacy of marketing while empowering us to see through it and think for ourselves. Asking us to picture what we really want as individuals, he persuades us to create mental adverts of our own – not couched in the crass universals of commercials, but rooted in the specifics of our own lives and dreams.

If the show sometimes flits, rather than finding a flow, Ward's tender presence holds it together. Never preachy, always utopian, [insert slogan here] becomes an advert for a world driven by art.

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