Theatre can change your life in ways you never expect – take it from an asthmatic running convert
I'm missing the cancelled Edinburgh Fringe a lot at the moment. Not simply because it means I can't revel in the densest arts festival in the world, or drink overpriced pints in a wet courtyard while trying to work out how many minutes it'd take to hurriedly get from one venue to another while making a pit-stop to buy a macaroni cheese pie (50 per cent cheese, 50 per cent pastry, 100 per cent carb, 100 per cent perfection) en route. But why I particularly miss it this year is because of what happened on 7 August 2019.
Anyone who has known me for longer than the last 12 months will know, I've always been a terrible, terrible runner – a relatively severe asthmatic, even running down a road to make a bus can basically force me to lock up and sit still for a few minutes. It was rather embarrassing for quite a long time – at school, red-faced, I languished at the back of the 90-student pile-up as I shuffled my way over the finish line during "Athletics" (I had another name for it, but it would involve a few asterisks). Running had become a bit of a phobia – the idea of feeling physically inept.
But everything changed around 12pm on that Fringe day when I went to see The Wardrobe Ensemble's newest play – The Last of the Pelican Daughters. For those who haven't seen the piece, it essentially follows a family who, grieving the death of their mother, gather at their old home to discuss plans for the future while mourning the woman who had raised them.
One of their mother's favourite songs – Minnie Riperton's "Les Fleurs" – comes on. The scene slowly crescendos with some awe-inspiring dance sequence (the show is directed and plotted by Jesse Jones and Tom Brennan, with sound design by Ben Grant) and the entire ensemble bursts onto the stage each wearing the same red dress, dancing in tandem as they each remember this gallant, powerhouse of a woman.
The way the song starts from a mellow, delicate high-pitched voice before evolving, mightily, into a sweeping odyssey – I was caught up in some hitherto-unknown energy, I felt as though I wanted, needed to run. To get out and about, travel somewhere – fast.
Getting back to London a week later I cracked out my battered, dusty running shoes and took off – initially just along the Parkland Walk from Finsbury Park to Highgate. Running had, as mentioned, been something that had terrified me – the grip on your chest as your lungs begin to protest, knowing that any second you'd have to stop and get out your inhaler. As if your organs were staging some ad-hoc coup. But having "Les Fleurs" on repeat, air-drumming along to its epic, soaring chorus, all of a sudden running five, ten kilometres felt like galloping through clouds.
By the end of September, I'd done my first 10k charity run at Blenheim Palace, finishing in the top 120 with a time just under 50 minutes. What did I have blasting through my headphones for the final kilometre during a torrential downpour? Riperton.
Since then, other songs have joined my playlist (I've embedded a Spotify link below) – Fabian Aloise's incredible choreography for Regent's Parl's revival of Evita meant I was forced to add "And the Money Kept Rolling In" (chatting to director Jamie Lloyd at the Critic's Circle Awards earlier this year, it turns out the song's on his list too), while Jonathan O'Boyle's staggering revival of The Last Five Years has meant a chance to add "I Can Do Better Than That" (very good for setting a really nice, sturdy running pace) and "Moving Too Fast" (perfect for when you need to well, move a bit faster). Thank the heavens it's back for a second stint in Southwark – I've already booked for the first preview. If there was a recording of the open-air Jesus Christ Superstar, a few of them would probably go on there too.
But it all started with a three-minute sequence in The Wardrobe Ensemble's brilliant show – three minutes of theatre that have, as of now, changed my life (I'm trying to train for a half marathon, hopefully some new theatre experiences will give me a chance to flesh out the playlist). The point is: for audience members, what the Edinburgh Festivals offer is a leap into the unknown – the chance for someone you've never met to change you in a way you never realised.
The full-scale Fringe may not be happening this year, but that offering will be back in 2021, I'm sure. And I'll have my running shoes ready.