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Do You Ever Feel Like A Fish Out of Water?: Reviewing 'Birthday Fish' at Wandsworth Arts Fringe Festival

Try to picture a hangover after a big night out or a hectic house party; you're laying on your bedroom floor while the world spins, dehydration brings you to the dramatic conclusion that you're on the brink of death, and lingering alcohol dances around the darkest depths of your negative thoughts. You feel like a fish laid out on concrete, writhing under the dry summer sun. At least that's the parallel image evoked by Northern performers Stephanie Burrell and Erin Hughes in their play Birthday Fish, performed at Wandsworth Arts Fringe this June.

Behind the scenes photography by Ellena-Maria Kappos.

Set in the middle of a birthday house party, the play follows the experiences of two young creatives living in London, Steph and Erin, as they navigate the nagging feeling of being 'fish out of water' in this intense city. The play begins with both characters stumbling into an upstairs room under the premise that Erin wants to redo her makeup before they brave the party again. Here, the dialogue is casual and realistic, with humorously slurred conversations and blatant miscommunications between the absentmindedly tipsy pair. With quips about techno music and Sabrina Carpenter, we're thrown into the world of pop culture and given a glimpse into London creative scenes that many of the play's audience members will be familiar with.

Before long, however, the scene shifts to address the darker side of this lifestyle. As Steph comedically paces the stage and rambles about finding a specific Latin song she had heard in a restaurant in Mexico, Erin stands at the back of the stage, leaning on a chair while quietly handling a panic attack. Hughes' subtle yet stony-faced expressions in this scene are compelling, and the mix of Steph's rambling, the muffled techno from the party, and Erin's strained breathing create an effective simulation of the overstimulation in Erin's mind.

Throughout the performance, Erin's reserved demeanour is balanced by Steph's expressive portrayal, including in the scene in which the central, flopping fish prop is explained. Burrell tells a rollercoaster story, almost in the form of spoken word poetry, about a fish she once witnessed dying on the street. Steph highlights that the fish was hauntingly close to a body of water as it died. Evoking various textures and declaring metaphors of confinement and freedom in her recollection, Steph dramatically fluctuates between distress and hopeful smiles while holding the flopping animatronic animal. Simultaneously, Erin tells a subtler story of the time she was left stranded by a London bus in the middle of the night, left to follow a fox as it led her to a horrific sight. Neither character listens to the other's story, but the sense of feeling helplessly out of place is evidently shared.

Photo by Ellena-Maria Kappos.

The performance is aptly described as "physical theatre with surrealist horror and cartoon comedy." This combination is at its most effective when the pair comedically chain-smoke plastic party blowers like cigarettes, and in the eventual use of the overtly absurd fish masks. The audience's laughter in these moments is supported by the self-aware tone of the piece; Erin concludes a particularly surrealist scene with the line "Right let's stop being freaks now and go back downstairs," allowing the play's storyline to remain mostly coherent.

Two concerns with the piece might be that certain gags dragged slightly longer than necessary, and the humour was targeted towards a select niche. Sat amongst a group of creative young people in the Wandsworth Fringe audience, it was no surprise to me that the witty dialogue about searching for sublets, working a 9-5 while creating art on the side, and tutoring rich kids as a side-hustle all effectively evoked audience laughter. The targeted experience at the heart of the comedy is not necessarily a weakness; Steph and Erin created this work out of a "desire to write and perform work that felt relevant and relatable to themselves and their peers." They certainly achieved this, yet I am left wondering how the piece will evolve as the pair go on to perform it to wider audiences outside of London. With an exciting future at Edinburgh Fringe Festival ahead, I am curious to see how the material and audiences may have to adapt, and how this performance will fare as a fish in Edinburgh Fringe's water.

Photo by Ellena-Maria Kappos.

The piece shone brightest, nonetheless, in its physicality. The influence of Steph and Erin's dance backgrounds, having met when studying contemporary dance at Trinity Laban, is evident and skilfully displayed throughout. With movement direction by Anna Nicholls, the dance elements of this piece were emotionally effective. The characters' conflicting inner monologues, shared vulnerability and over-indulgent impulses were expressed beautifully by the pair's controlled movements, especially in the repeated sequence where the duo clean up after the night-before.

At just under 60 minutes in length, the piece is suitably snappy. Combining impressive movement with effective surrealist comedy, Birthday Fish taps into a relevant contemporary experience for young creative people the midst of inflated cost-of-living and the corporate takeover of U.K. cities like London. It is a worthy watch from these two talented performers, one of whom is King's College London alumna Burrell, and is guaranteed to strike a chord with the countless young creative people struggling to navigate London's stress-infested waters.

Watch the trailer here:


Written and edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.

Any quotes in this piece are taken from the Wandsworth Arts Fringe's webpage for the show.


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