'There is nothing like sitting in a circle to hear a story,' says Jonny Donahoe. 'And that’s what Roundabout recreates: kind of a caveman thing.'
Don't take that literally: there's nothing primitive about Roundabout. After five years in development, this travelling theatre from Paines Plough – Britain's premier touring theatre company – launched at Summerhall in 2014 and quickly became the most lovable venue on the Fringe. Since then, it's had stints at London's Southbank Centre and the Brighton Fringe, and now returns to Summerhall with stable of exciting works: among them Daniel Kitson's latest, the already sold-out Polyphony; a new kids show from Matilda the Musical writer Dennis Kelly, Our Teacher's a Troll; and the lovely Every Brilliant Thing, a reprise from last year starring the aforementioned Donahoe.
Its stellar lineup aside, much of Roundabout's appeal is in its appearance. Dreamt up by Paines Plough joint artistic directors James Grieve and George Perrin, and designed by Lucy Osborne and Emma Chapman in collaboration with Charcoal Blue and Howard Eaton Lighting, this circular space is a triumph of creativity. Its brightly coloured upholstery makes for an immediately welcoming environment, which was a priority for Grieve and Perrin.
'The intention has always been to take the Roundabout to parts of the country that don’t have theatres,' says Perrin. 'We wanted to break down some of the traditional barriers. We have noticed that some people find theatres very dark and quite formal, and so we wanted something that was informal, that was light, that didn’t feel like a theatre, I suppose – that felt more like an exciting room to sit in where a story will get told. We just wanted a really warm, welcoming, comfortable, exciting space that nevertheless still did everything you needed a theatre to do.'
'I think that one of the things we’re really excited about is that it feels permanent when you’re in there,' adds Chapman, who has a background in lighting design. 'It doesn’t feel like a temporary space. I think that’s because it’s very solid in its structure.'
Part of this structure is its innovative lighting, which has been integral to Roundabout's success. 'It’s got 627 LED fixtures and nine triangular panels and a central disk panel,' Chapman explains, 'and everything rigs at floor level and with no focus. So what you can guarantee as a lighting designer, which is really exciting, is that the show that you light in venue number one will look identical wherever it appears, and all the lights are exactly in the same position. Literally, you plug it in and the show is all ready to go once the pit is up.'
Jonny Donahoe in Every Brilliant Thing / Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
The lighting setup makes it much brighter than a traditional theatre. Being able to see the audience's faces might make some performers nervous, but for Donahoe it's been a big advantage when performing Every Brilliant Thing, a partially improvised comedy about living with depression.
'If there is one thing we wanted to say about depression it's that the only thing that can help you is not being alone. And that’s so inherently true when you’re in that space,' he laughs. 'I mean, you can see 165 other people and you can clearly see their faces. That’s a very unusual situation. Normally you’re in the dark, and there is something very intimate in that theatre, something so personal about it. It’s not usual to feel so completely part of a group, which is why I love the Roundabout: because it makes you part of a breathing and living organism.'
Other plays in this year's Roundabout lineup include The Human Ear (a new offering by Alexandra Wood who won a Fringe First last year for The Initiate); Duncan Macmillan's Lungs, a drama about a couple who want a child; and Molly Davies' dark comedy, Chicken. But the theatre's also crossing genre boundaries; as well as Perrier winner Daniel Kitson's theatrical work, Roundabout will host Earlier / Later, a series of early morning and late night shows featuring comedy, poetry, music and dance, including appearances from Josie Long and Luke Wright. Also on is much-loved satirical musical comedy act Jonny and the Baptists ('Jonny' is Every Brilliant Thing's Donahoe).
'It's about bringing the audience into the space who maybe wouldn’t come to see a straight play as it were, who might see Daniel and Jonny and then think about seeing something else,' says Perrin. 'That’s the gesture, everywhere we go around the country. We want there to be something in Roundabout for everyone and we want to find ways of introducing our core work, which is new plays, to people who might not come to them immediately. But we also just wanted a really eclectic Edinburgh programme.'
'From a comedy perspective,' adds Donahoe, 'it’s the perfect room to generate laughter and joy. The Jonny and the Baptists show previewed in there and the difference in previewing there and previewing somewhere else is it does the warm up act for you. The audience are already in that mood that you want them to be in when we start and I think there is something very special about that.'
Chicken, 8–30 Aug (not 11, 18 , 25), 5.05pm, £14–£16 (£12–£14). Preview 7 Aug, £9. Earlier / Later, 10–23 Aug, times and prices vary. Every Brilliant Thing, 8–30 Aug (not 11, 18 , 25), 2.05pm, £15–£17 (£10–£12). Jonny and the Baptists: The End is Nigh, 8–30 Aug (not 18 , 25), 7.50pm, £11–£12 (£9–£10). Preview 7 Aug, £9. Lungs, 9, 12, 14, 16, 19, 21, 23–30 Aug, 3.35pm & 10.30pm (24, 26, 28, 30 Aug), £15–£17 (£10–£12). Preview 7 Aug, £9. Our Teacher's a Troll, 8–23 Aug (not 11, 18), 11am, £8–£10 (£6–£8). Preview 6–7 Aug, £5. Polyphony, 7–29 Aug (not 11, 18, 25) 12.15pm, £12. The Human Ear, 8, 10, 13, 15, 17, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30 Aug, 3.35pm, £15 (£10). Preview 6 Aug, £9. All shows at Roundabout @ Summerhall, 560 1581. See edinburghfestival.list.co.uk for full programme.
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