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Review: Woodhill at Summerhall - Ed Fringe

Review by Carly Fisher

Politically driven theatre is important. It is critical in fact. It is a reminder of how valuable the Arts are in encouraging conversation and in opening community mindset’s to change.

I have found Edinburgh Fringe in 2023 to be an absolute hub for some of the best political theatre I’ve seen in the Independent Sector from around the world and the work here is inspiring. Summerhall seems to have made a really strong decision to focus much of their season this year on such works and position themselves as the venue for theatre with a lot to say…and I find that enormously exciting! I very much enjoyed what I saw at Summerhall this year as such.

Woodhill follows three families as they struggle to find out what happened to their loved ones who have died whilst in custody at Woodhill Prison. They are not isolated incidents, they are three of over 30 stories of recent suicides at the same prison. It is harrowing theatre that hurts and haunts even more knowing that these are true stories.

On the way into the theatre is a sign that informs us that ‘The UK has the highest imprisonment rate in all of Western Europe’ - it’s a fact that rattles you on entry and cleverly so as the show goes on to question the prison system, the justice system and what countries like the UK (and others) are doing about actual reform and rehabilitation, rather than just punishment. I strongly believe that these are important conversations to have and I hope that Art like Woodhill encourages others to think about this topic too, a topic that, I believe, too often gets swept under the rug because quite brutally, many often just don’t care about the prison system until it impacts someone they know.

Though the words from interviews with the family members of three men who died at Woodhill makes up the soundscape for the piece, Woodhill is first and foremost a piece of physical theatre. Four dancers make up the ensemble and express the pain that the family feels through movement only, leaving all text and dialogue to the voice overs. I love the concept of this, I think that the work created was powerful but for me, there are few details in this particular production that just left me feeling a bit flat…

Firstly, and most critically, the show starts out intense and angry. It does not change at all in pace, levity or intensity from there. Unfortunately, this quickly becomes monotonal and undermines the impact that the show can have. Additionally, the show runs at 75 minutes, a quarter of an hour longer than your average fringe show, so to not have this variety weighs heavily.

Similarly, the choreography doesn’t change drastically - the show opens with the dancers offering staccato movements, like small convulsions of anger if you will, and this motif is continued throughout the show. The variations in choreography are not drastic enough to feel as though the story progresses as far as I think the intention is for them to go. In fact, mostly you know that time has passed and things have changed because of on stage costume changes. I think that finding some ebbs and flows in rhythm, movement, choreography and storytelling would absolutely enhance the piece.

With greater diversity in the emotional state of the piece, I can absolutely see that I would have been engaged on an even deeper level, because what is there is fantastic! It’s just too much for 75 minutes and whilst at the beginning you feel that sense of breathlessness, it simply is not sustainable throughout when, as mentioned, the piece remains one noted.

Some of the choices were a little more complex to interpret - like the choice to have one performer throwing seeds, then leaves, then flowers. The set, however, was gorgeous and so brilliantly designed - I absolutely loved the impact of something as simply as shelves on wheels with cardboard boxes. Interactive, symbolic and truly stunning, this was an excellent choice.

The dancers give more than everything that they have on stage. What an emotional, raw, exhausting performance for them. I was inspired by their commitment to the stories and their willingness to give every ounce of energy that they have to tell them. This is a big piece for the performers on stage and they perform it with urgency, grace, respect and absolute power in their movement.

The stories more than pack a punch and the generosity from these families in sharing the stories is enormous and appreciated by all those in the audience.

Woodhill definitely made me think but to be honest, prison reform is not something that I haven’t given a lot of thought to in the past. Maybe for audiences who had not really considered this much before, the shock value of the work will encourage them to think about it more. I hope so.

A strong piece of theatre but one I wanted to feel more impact from…and frustratingly, one who I believe was right on the cusp of it as well! With a bit more consideration of pace and levity to vary tone and weight, this could become the strongest physical theatre piece I have ever seen.

Image Supplied


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