Review: Ticker, Underbelly Cowgate, Edinburgh Fringe

Written and performed by Tom Machell, Ticker is a fully-fledged, consummate piece of theatre. It is rare and no small achievement for a one-person piece to engross from start to finish. Machell’s creation does not miss a beat from one moment to the next; he has all the gifts of a fireside storyteller, tempered with the poise and control of a great tragedian.

Machell plays Spencer, a “twenty-something Geordie millennial.” The 60-minute play follows his response to his “inestimable” girlfriend Gabi’s sudden death from an undiagnosed heart condition. Such a ponderous subject is handled with great care and respect: Machell’s performance is heart-rendingly sincere, his writing immediate. Ably evaded are the various obstacles that solo drama faces. As the winding and non-linear plot progresses, Machell exhibits a keen skill for physicality, embodying several different characters, often in conversation with one another. His ability to magnify unique gestures and accents brings a clarity that is often endangered when audiences are faced with a single performer.

Director and developer, Derek Anderson, works excellently alongside composer and sound designer, Holly Khan. All the elements of Ticker cohere seamlessly, realising a masterful theatrical experience. An innovative and compact desktop set is employed to give Machell an anchor around which his confusion and grief revolve. Containing a number of hidden compartments, at various intervals he produces resonant objects from his time with Gabi. The ordinariness of these items reinforces the reality of Ticker. From the verisimilitude of the script, Machell’s achingly naturalistic performance, to Spencer’s lame gift for Gabi of a coffee cup with “raging” poorly sharpied on the front, we are pathetically aware that we are witnessing real life.

One of the glorious things about Ticker is the joy Machell imparts in its early stages. The published play is available to buy on the door; in the author’s note Machell explains that he wanted to write a central character whom “audiences wouldn’t always like”. It strikes me that while it is certainly the case that Spencer’s actions are not wholly sympathetic, all of the time – his stricken outburst at Gabi’s funeral surely being one moment – he possesses few distasteful qualities. He is wrought with the depth of a true human being and, entangled in a devastating situation, he responds as any of us might. Machell captures the weight of his admiration for Gabi perfectly, and his cheeky garrulous personality shines through the circumstances thrust on him.

I will not call Ticker a new breed of theatre because it does not technically break any new ground: it is watertight writing brought to life through sincere acting, supported by confident directing, a stylish set and beautiful sound design. But as it was once noted, “to be original with the minimum of alteration is sometimes more distinguished than to be original with the maximum of alteration.” Ticker’s lasting and most powerful comment may be just this – it does not alter the world it seeks to depict, but fearlessly holds up a mirror to it.

Ticker played at Underbelly Cowgate until 25 August. For more information, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website