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Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Low Down

A terminally-ill 25 year old, suffering from a rare and incurable form of heart cancer, makes his two best friends promise him a Viking funeral


James Rowland has the sort of beard that any Viking would covet – blonde and bushy – and with his polite, warm and gentle demeanour, he could have stepped accidentally out of an episode of Noggin The Nog (younger readers may Google), were it not for the black suit and tie.

The first few minutes of this show are spent with some housekeeping notes. He will shortly have to operate the lights, it will get very warm – and we are in a small room at Just The Tonic at the Community Project, so the woodwork class with vulnerable kids upstairs may impinge a little. This is the Fringe, so we are all, for an hour at least, in the same metaphorical boat.

There is little onstage. A small Peavey amp, reminiscent of teenage garage bands and a microphone on a stand.  The house lights go out and Rowland commences his epic tale, not unlike a Beowulf in its scale and momentous events. In a little under an hour he unrolls one of the most beautiful, funny, moving and haunting pieces of storytelling I’ve witnessed for some time. Part autobiography, part confessional , it’s an attempt to “grief-handle” –as he terms it – the death of his father and subsequently, his closest friend, at the age of 25, from one of the very rarest of conditions – heart cancer. The chances of suffering from this are one in ten million. Putting this front and centre would not, you might think, make for an entertaining evening – not many laughs in that. However, the unpacking of the story, from the shared childhood of the protagonists – Rowland himself, his best friend Tom, stricken with the awful disease that guarantees his death within a very short space of time – and the other part of the triangle – Sarah, is as varied as the characters that people it, with rich seams of humour that illuminate the tragedy.

Having grown up together, sharing a passion for role-playing “The Vikings” (the movie with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis) in which Sarah insists on playing one of the men so Rowland has to be a Princess – and other sundry parts – they move through school and university and into adulthood. There is deep love between these children of the 90’s. Tom’s diagnosis has a difficult consequence – he makes both the friends promise him a Viking funeral – consumed by fire in an open boat. Rowland and Sarah set about their task.  Like all good epic stories or myths, this is just the beginning – what follows is something akin to the labours of Hercules. Any other plot here would constitute a spoiler.

This isn’t just storytelling – Rowland doesn’t act the other characters in the story, he inhabits them. The narrative is driven against the ticking clock of mortality and there are jaw-dropping twists in the plot. It’s rare to hear audible gasps and experience genuine moments of pathos but there are some here. Cleverly mixed in is a song that arrives in parcels, assisted by an Ed Sheeran sound pedal, that punctuates the story and allows the audience time to gather themselves and process the sadness, the laughter and the awful inevitability of what is surely to come. The Greeks knew a thing or two about managing emotion – this, for anyone who experiences it, is as close to catharsis as we can get in modern society. At no stage does Rowland come close to sentimentality or self-indulgence. It’s sure-footed, poised and delicate in its treatment of death – whether certain or unexpected.

Rowland’s mum was in the audience when I saw it – he brushes it off – “No pressure then”. Richly textured, shot through with gentle humour and self-deprecation, this is the best of storytelling at the Fringe. Don’t miss it.