Review: James Rowland's Songs of Friendship, Summerhall, Edinburgh Fringe

James Rowland is performing his Songs of Friendships trilogy across the month, mostly on separate evenings, but with four selected nights in August where he does the whole lot in one go. This is the way that the stories were written. And the four hours fly by. 

Rowland invites us in, tempts us to sit near the front and reassures that there will be no audience interaction in this show. From the moment he turns off the house lights he explains that he will become a performer and everything else will be artifice. Team Viking paints a portrait of Rowland’s childhood, mainly the parts that involved him and best friends Sarah and Tom. Tom was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer eight years ago, and Rowland goes on an adventure to give him the send off he desires. What strikes me early on is the way he goes off on all sorts of tangents, and does so in a way that feels wholly authentic, like the thought just hits him, as he briefly takes us away from our path for a moment to fill in a missing anecdote. It’s an incredible exhibit of seeming spontaneity.

It becomes increasingly difficult to separate the man from the character. He builds this rapport with the audience where we become putty in his hand, completely invested in the supposedly artificial world that he constructs. The whole experience becomes less like a theatrical monologue and more like your best mate telling you their life story. And, magically, it never bores. As conventions of stories themselves are referred to — ‘I fell off my chair which I thought up to that point in my life was the sort of thing that only happens in stories’ — what results is a game of Vikings wrapped up in a story within a story. Rowland’s delivery is often quite matter-of-fact. Like he’s recollecting an experience rather than reliving it. There are sudden and unexpected shifts between laughter and tragedy, and the two often come together: this is a world where it’s OK to laugh at death. 

There’s an apparent sense of effortlessness in his delivery, which makes it consistently stimulating. It’s not arduous for us when his presence is so relaxing. It almost feels anti-theatrical in this sense, as the labour required from the spectators is kept to a minimum. Or at least it’s certainly disguised very well. 

The second part of the trilogy is A Hundred Different Words for Love. It feels the vaguest of the three stories. Still full of poetry, as he describes falling in love like threading two beings together, which so beautifully captures the tightness of intimacy, hand-in-hand with the pain of a sharp needle. Rowland is a (important to note, not “the”) child of Richard Curtis; his ideals of romance are influenced by romcom films. There’s a keyboard on stage, and he breaks up the narrative with musical interludes which he records and plays back on a loop pedal to undertone the story. 

The trilogy is completed with Revelations. This is the story of Rowland helping out friends Sarah and Emma to have a child … by donating his sperm. I find myself totally lost within the story: the playfulness of white snow, the poignant naming of the new baby. Our trilogy begins with a story about death and ends with one of brand-new life.

Songs of Friendships is a masterclass in storytelling and the three pieces work equally well as separate entities or together in one joyous evening of togetherness.

James Rowland’s Songs of Friendships played Summerhall until 25 August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.