Edinburgh Fringe 2023
After a mass extinction event that leaves humans few and far between, a mother tries to teach her teenage daughter how to prepare the world for when the humans are gone. This is further complicated by the return of the daughter’s lover, and the daughter’s pregnancy.
There is an old proverb says that we must plant trees under whose shade you do not plan to sit. Miranda has taken this to heart. In fact, the goal is that no one will sit under these trees. The human race is coming to its end, and for Miranda it cannot come soon enough. She has taken it upon herself to be Mother Nature, teaching the trees how to change their leaves, and the geese how to migrate again. Her most important lessons are for her daughter, Sue, who must carry on atoning for the sins of humanity once her mother is gone. Sue is conflicted about this responsibility, not least because she is secretly pregnant. Her lover Teddy returns from a three month absence, during which he has been searching for a safe place where they can raise their child, away from Miranda who will no doubt want the pregnancy to be ended. Teddy’s return sets in motion a series of events which will have terrible consequences for all.
Although this work is set in an undetermined (but increasingly more likely) future, there is something classic about it. It could easily be something Rodgers and Hammerstein decided to adapt into one of their musicals, although the shocking ending is more something a Sondheim would be comfortable with. Sondheim, of course, was attracted to fairytales and legends, and this also has a bit of that deep dark magic in it.
The Torch Ensemble, who have also brought up ‘The Trash Garden’ which with ‘Debating Extinction’ make ‘The Climate Fables’, are well-trained performers who bring a wonderful physicality to their work. This is particularly showcased in the final third, where Padraig Bond’s superb direction allows the actors to really show what they are capable of. As Sue, Penelope Deen serves as our anchor and beating heart, able to invoke sympathy and strength with the smallest expression. Her desire to be heard by the ones who claim to love her is palpable, but never fully realized. Tibor Lazar’s Teddy seems at times the knight in armor, and at others the evil prince, and it is not totally clear which one prevails. Kristen Hoffman as Miranda is particularly fearless in her portrayal, a controlling mother with secrets right out of Grimm’s most macabre tales. By the end, I wasn’t completely sure who I ought to be rooting for, but that is one of the more intriguing bits of the script, also written by Padraig Bond. In this fairy tale, one that is uncomfortably real, there perhaps are no clear answers and it is within us as the audience to decide who is right and who is wrong, if anyone.
We are now starting to see theatre from the generation that has inherited the responsibility of atonement for the sins of their forefathers. ‘Debating Extinction’ asks us who is right to choose such a fate for another, and if there is truly any choice at all. It is a beautiful, delicate sapling that, with some gardening, will no doubt grow into a strong Oak under the capable hands of the Torch Ensemble.