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Edinburgh review: Often Onstage (Pleasance Dome)

All-female company Figs in Wigs explore the ups and downs of theatre through the medium of comedy dance... and the Backstreet Boys

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Often Onstage by Figs in Wigs
© Rosie Collins

It may be a festival, but the Fringe is hard work. Beneath all the entertainment, there's industry. Behind the leisure, labour. Sequinned surrealists Figs in Wigs lay it all bare in a skittish show that ends up dancing on the glass ceiling.

What starts with an extended curtain call – five ruffed Shakespeareans applauding us applauding them – grows into a dissection of the theatre as a workplace. The ‘workers' go up and a get-out begins: the set stripped out, the cast critiquing themselves. It's frantic and physical and flushed. Then a get-in: a new set and a warm-up. This is anti-theatre of the highest order: ante-theatre, even. We don't often see this stuff. Exposing it, pulling the whole pretence down, takes real cheek.

We kid ourselves otherwise, talking about "the love of it" and "living the dream," but every performer is a worker, and every audience member, a consumer. When that façade drops, it can be acutely embarrassing. The economics and power-balance come to the fore. (Read Nicholas Ridout. I'm ripping him off.) All that's twice as true at the Fringe: an over-crowded pay-to-play festival that can leave artists worse off. It's why being flyered can feel so awkward; why sitting in an audience of two makes us squirm.

By revealing its own labour, Often Onstage sits squarely in that space of embarrassment, wringing out a nervous laughter. The five Figs are never perfectly in sync. They dance with an edge of amateurism; their routines, the stuff of childhood bedrooms. Without the usual slickness, you see the people beneath the performance – the act of it rather than the stuff. Out of that emerges a considered argument about the work involved.

One routine, drawn out for ages, casts them as backing dancers. Long fringes covering their eyes, they're anonymous and identikit: just bodies – female bodies – striking sexy poses in the stage smoke. In another, they spout empty motivational slogans in pea-green pencil skirt power-suits: tautological nonsense, mostly. A voiceover wants to know how they survive, what they earn, how long they'll keep doing this. Almost out of frustration, they return all in white - marker pen goatees, flat caps on backwards – as a Backstreet Boys tribute act. Male. Mainstream. Megastars. And still a boy band being screamed at well into their forties.

Beneath the surface frivolity – outlandish, charity shop costumes and loopy dance steps – there's a lot going on. Layers of culture rub up against each other: some par for the course, some overlooked, some dismissed. Showing the similarities, Often Onstage asks why we treat them different. What's accepted as art or entertainment, or culture? What makes money? Who gets the spotlight? And why, of why, can't Figs in Wigs be the Backstreet Boys? Go on, tell me why.

Often Onstage runs at 16:10 at the Pleasance Dome until 26 August (not 22).

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