Whistle

Fri 5th – Mon 29th August 2011

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Alexandra Sayers

at 11:57 on 27th Aug 2011

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‘Whistle’ is not your average childhood memoir. Martin Figura, the writer and director of this truly original piece, has made its centre the death of his mother at the hands of his father. Cleverly, the piece does not start with this event: rather, a family portrait is built up in which we are told of the father’s secret life as a reluctant Nazi-youth soldier, and his eventual escape into Poland and later England. Here, he falls in love with June, and the two get married and have three children. Figura tells us with touching perspicacity of the family days out, and of the happy dynamic that shaped his early years. But we know that worse is to come, and so these family memories are shot through with poignancy and a grim expectation of death. When the main event does come, then, it is done with sensitivity and subtlety: it displays a rejection of high drama in favour of a non-showy exploration into the dangers of human love. There is no explosion, no heightened language. Instead, his father’s life ‘frayed like a bootlace’, and the second half of the piece is entered into in a similarly quiet progression. How refreshing, in a festival that seems only too readily to revel in the un-necessarily melodramatic, to have a highly unusual and shocking story told with such quiet grace and poise.

The language Figura uses is a mixture of spoken-word prose and rhyming poetry, a winning combination, as the prose describes with vivid evocation and the poetry adds a beauty to the rhythm of the piece. My only issue with the performance, however, was the use of a projector screen, showing various pictures throughout the recitation. I wasn’t sure whether director James Grieve wanted the audience to focus on the figure of Figura and the sound of the language, or on this projector screen with its photos and its diagrams. I felt that the focus should have been primarily on the language, and so for me, the screen was a distraction. Further the success of what was shown was limited: I loved the frayed, sepia-tinted photos of Figura’s parents, and little Figura eating his meals and posing uncomfortably with his sister; but I was far less keen on the picture-art diagrams and drawings. These seemed to take away from the personal and individual value of the piece, adding a gimmick-y tinge that it simply did not need. The piece would have been even more impressive if it had stripped back its multi-media aspect, and bravely asserted the entire focus on the spot-lighted Figura and his incredible, beautifully rendered story.

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Donnchadh O'Conaill

at 12:27 on 27th Aug 2011

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One man stands in the spotlight, telling us about his life. This is a staple format for the Fringe, and for one show to stand out often depends on how interesting the performer is. The interest in Martin Figura’s one -man spoken word act lies not so much in himself as in his family’s tragic background. We learn a lot about him over the course of the show, but it is presented in the frame of his parents’ relationship.

Figura’s father Frank, originally from Silesia, was conscripted into the Wehrmacht, captured by the Allies, and finished the war fighting for the Free Poles. Moving to England, he met and married June. Figura spends much of the first part of the show recounting childhood memories: making illicit sandwiches, building model aeroplanes with his father, a trip to Silesia. He has an eye for the telling detail, such as thumbprints on the Airfix model or his mother wiping his mouth clean after the sandwich she was not meant to have noticed, but I found some of the more poetic descriptions a little stretched, straining the low-key tone which suited Figura better. The childhood incidents on their own do not go beyond the kind of nostalgia familiar from other memoirs, but the initial description of his parents hangs like a shadow over them, hinting at the direction in which the show is about to turn.

This is very much storytelling rather than a character piece. Figura’s style is mostly matter-of-fact, with a few flourishes, as when he runs through a high-speed description of an adoptive family. His descriptions are counterpointed by projected pictures and animations; the design of some of these (particularly a school report which filled up with the detail, and the photographs of his miscreant friends appearing as he mentions them) are clever without overshadowing his performance.

It is fair to say that the entire show turns on its ending. Figura wisely avoids explaining the significance of what he has depicted; rather, he teases out each thread (a record of oompah band music; trips to a Polish shop in Luton to buy sausage; the final image of his father’s corpse) and lets us draw them together. It is as moving as it is expertly crafted, letting the details speak for themselves through simple juxtaposition. There is, as he says himself, no forgiveness for what his father did, but nor is there any renunciation or rejection. A better illustration of the terrible complexity of family ties would be hard be find.

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