If Wes Anderson were ever to try his hand at staging a Fringe production, it would look something like this. Part comedy, part one-man sound desk, and part good old-fashioned storytelling, Edinburgh regular and double Fringe First award-winning performer Hugh Hughes (aka Shôn Dale-Jones) sets a warm, friendly tone from the moment he greets you with a handshake at the door. Hughes comes across as an effortlessly cool teacher in charge of a hundred cheeky kids, amenable to some light heckling, short detours and minor derailments, but with a firm enough grip on the show not to let it overrun by more than ten minutes. His wholesome, happy-go-lucky persona contributes to a uniquely tailored communal experience.
The “Duke” in question is a small porcelain figurine of the Duke of Wellington on horseback, wrapped in tissue paper in a box underneath a bed in Hughes’s family home in the 1970s. I don’t want to elaborate any further for fear of spoiling the sheer delight of the narrative, which has as many twists and turns as a walking path down a West Country cliff. It’s a fizzy cocktail of fantasy and reality, with characters’ real-world identities getting shuffled around like a card deck, allowing the superficial facts of the matter to take a back seat whilst still allowing authenticity to fill the room.
On a broad thematic level, this is a story about the power of art, pricelessness, pragmatism, investments, and no small amount of Welshness. The fantasy lies in tiny, episodic adventures with a cast of quirky family, friends, colleagues and strangers; the realism lies in different sets of priorities and urgent tasks getting seamlessly interweaved into the fabric of the show, throwing Hughes into existential distraction on a regular basis. The pressure to make laughably unreasonable changes to an artistic project within a week, a devastating radio report on the latest refugee fatalities at sea, and a quiet anxiety about his mother’s mortality (“she’s only getting older”), all compete for Hughes’s attention, to the point of a psychic and creative crisis which he must then set out to resolve.
These priorities sit uncomfortably alongside one another as they do in real life, with professional and global concerns intruding upon each of our uniquely personal preoccupations via email, radio, phone, and chance face-to-face encounters. In The Duke, the limits of Hughes’s ability to intervene and solve a problem are in a constant state of flux and, with collections for Save The Children’s Refugee Crisis Appeal after the hour is up, this spills over into the audience too. In addition to a warm and fuzzy glow, this trip down one man’s half-imagined memory lane will likely make you reassess the nuances of what it means to make a difference in the world.
‘The Duke’, was performed at Pleasance Courtyard as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2017. All proceeds were donated to the Save the Children’s Child Refugee Crisis Appeal.