Thief at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: incredibly well-acted and compelling, but ultimately too juvenile
Thief is another one of those shows that I’d planned to see in previous years but never actually got round to it, so when I was scrolling through the Fringe website looking for something to see, it jumped out pretty fast as a piece to request tickets to.
Last time I was in the Hill Street Theatre, it was for an immersive staging of The Lieutenant of Inishmore by the same people who were, at that time, just debuting Trainspotting Live (I’ll spare you the details, but it involved rain ponchos and gallons of fake blood). Anyways, it’s interesting to be back here again – the toilet door doesn’t lock properly and the bar only takes cash (eugh). In the theatre for Thief – which is, surprisingly, pretty large – we’re apologised profusely to for the warm temperature. Again, I’m surprised, because most stuffy Fringe venues are about twice as hot as this and half as roomy.
Thief is a piece of work that knows ‘controversy sells’. For this reason, it has a poster filled with warnings and a garish, nasty image of a man screaming into a gag as its flyer. Part of me wonders if the reason for the small audience when I saw it is that people thought it looked ‘too nasty’ – other shows (like Trainspotting Live) manage to bait a controversy-hunting audience without making their productions look like a live snuff film.
Anyways, Thief, which is stupidly called Thief by Liam Rudden on the Fringe website – like, that’s its official title – stars Lee Fanning as Sailor in a one-man piece which explores the character’s life and upbringing. Sailor is the titular thief – a man who uses his body and sex as a ‘means to an end’, that end being money or prized possessions or anything to get by. The play takes place in what I imagined to be the 16 or 1700’s.
Fanning is superlatively good in the role, strutting across the stage as if he owns it and projecting a muscular, testosterone bravado across the room. Yet, when the script calls for it, he’s able to open up emotionally and reveal his weaknesses in a way that’s much more powerful because we’ve seen the transformation from rock-hard façade to the person underneath. Doing a one-man show is hard enough but doing so in a way that conveys such convincing vulnerability takes true talent and strength.
It helps that the story guiding the performance is consistently compelling, taking place on long voyages across the seas, in prisons, and in brothels. There are high stakes, murders, lovers and a lot of sex. Sailor is alternately despicable and loveable, and the hour… ahem… sails past in record time.
Despite all that, though, I couldn’t get out of my head the idea that Rudden’s script is a little too juvenile and shock-driven for its own good. This is the kind of show that thinks a last-minute cock reveal is scandalous when practically half the shows at the festival feature almost constant nudity. This is the kind of show that chucks in several scenes of simulated rape and sex for no other reason than to boost its own sensationalism. This is the kind of show that has its performer come right up to the audience and scream in their faces because that’s ‘raw’ and ‘shocking’. Hell, it even opens with a scene of simulated masturbation.
If you scroll through its Twitter account (yes, it has a Twitter account), you’ll see scores of retweets from audience members proclaiming how ‘shocking’, ‘visceral’ or ‘not for the easily offended’ the piece is – because that’s its brand. Hell, even the play’s writer asks ‘do you dare [see it]?’ But it’s all too easy to see through the disingenuous attempts at provocation to a text that doesn’t really do anything to challenge its liberal audience or their perceptions, and therefore doesn’t provoke at all.
As an acting showcase, then, Thief is a phenomenal piece of work – Lee Fanning puts his heart and soul into the role and completely transforms into Sailor for a spellbinding hour that cements his incredible talent. It’s entertaining, dark, and moody. But ultimately, I wished it had been a little more incisive and thematically provocative, and a little less faux-edgy.