76th Edinburgh Fringe: REVIEW
"This is a simple but clear narrative that inevitably holds up a mirror to its audience; what Bill experiences is our experience and our reality."
Andy Manjuck & Dorothy James
August 24, 2023
Waking up early on his 44th birthday, Bill is eager to get the celebrations started. Punch, check. Extra alcohol, check. Balloons, check. Charcuterie board, check. Friends and family? The seconds turn into minutes, and the minutes into hours, leaving Bill growing concerned that nobody is going to turn up for his big party. As the reality of the situation begins to set in for Bill, he finds himself having to recede into the protection of his imagination as a way to try and deal with the pain, frustration, and isolation he’s feeling. Just as the grip of loneliness begins to take hold, Bill discovers a gift that might very well change the course of his life and give him the birthday he deserves.
Puppetry is one of those staples of the fringe that can be hit or miss. Every year there are a couple that stand out and become ‘must-see’ shows, which inevitably lead to sell-out runs, which is a great thing for the show. With Bill’s 44th, Andy Manjunk and Dorothy James have created a show that evolves from this gentle comedy, with its absurdist elements, to this touchingly heartfelt reflective piece about looniness and truly finding yourself and loving that person you discover.
It took me a minute to connect with Bill, but once I did, it was hard to let go of him. Manjunk and James work seamlessly as Bill’s puppeteers, and though there is no illusion of Bill being a puppet, neither Manjunk nor James distract from the emotional power that they’re able to inject into their creation. This is a simple but clear narrative that inevitably holds up a mirror to its audience; what Bill experiences is our experience and our reality.
Ever since the pandemic, more questions have been asked about society, our happiness, and our connectivity. For decades, what we saw as a shared community of neighbours, family, friends, work colleagues, postal workers, etc. has slowly ebbed away. We no longer have those same connections we once had, and as if by magic, they have disappeared, and nobody really knows how or when this happened. The pandemic highlighted this because everyone was in the same situation: isolated. We began to look at life, work, and community much differently. For Bill, we know he’s in an apartment, yet none of his neighbours come around to say ‘happy birthday’. And we also know he’s only 44—not an old age, not young either, but an average age and much too young to feel as alone as he does.
Loneliness is something that creeps in on us; it’s not something that you become as aware of as you might think. The hours, days, weeks, months, and years go by, and little by little, over this time, you discover you’ve become alone. It is in this loneliness that you find comfort in your imagination, happy in a way to allow your imagination to create the friends and the conversations that you no longer have. At times, heartbreakingly, this ‘imagined’ reality seems more real than the real one, with you finding greater comfort and protection in this fake world.
"Manjunk and James make you feel every emotion Bill is going through and through their incredible skill, care, precision, and understanding, manage to convince you that Bill is alive."
As Bill’s imagination begins to create the party he so longs for, I am reminded of that incredible scene in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000), just before Sara Goldfarb has a complete breakdown and runs out of the apartment. By this point, Sara has allowed her imagination to overtake her. Desperate to appear on TV and fighting an addiction to pills, a retired old woman is left alone to try to live a life that’s almost impossible for her to live. Manjunk and James brilliantly explore this creeping dark side of Bill’s imagination by using a variety of balloons that ingeniously run on tiny tracks along the floor, which, at this point, overburden Bill.
Through their actions and Bill's, we see him having multiple conversations with these inanimate objects. Yet for him, these are real: the conversations, the jokes, and the emotions he's feeling. One of the hardest things for someone like Bill to do is to coming back into reality as he knows that the imagination can only do so much protecting before it begins to do damage.
The only moment of real human connection that Bill encounters on his birthday is when a pizza deliveryman mistakenly knocks on his door. It is hard to express the way Manjunk and James convey this scene, but they do it with such saliency that it breaks your heart. The audience is unsure what might happen or who might come, if anyone, but what we do know is that we feel the disappointment Bill feels when he opens the door and it’s someone he doesn’t know. We also feel his desperation when he rushes back to the door, wanting to invite the deliveryman in, only for it to be another missed opportunity. Manjunk and James make you feel every emotion Bill is going through and through their incredible skill, care, precision, and understanding, manage to convince you that Bill is alive.
The highlight of the show for me revolved around the videotape that Bill was eventually able to watch. Nothing prepares you for the creative vision that Manjunk and James create with this scene. Throughout the show, the duo is able to perform in a way that almost erases them from the performance; they make Bill appear so real and alive. As Bill sits there watching a miniature version of himself, a picture begins to form about Bill, his life, and the significance of his red watch.
Bill’s 44th has a lot of humour, some of it really silly; almost all the scenes involving the carrot are very funny and well delivered with Eamon Fogarty’s music adding a extra added depth and beauty to the piece. But the core of this piece is centred around a middle-aged man who has fallen into a trap of self-isolation, which has allowed loneliness to set in deeply. By being able to look at his life and his story, Bill is able to find a way to not only save his life but, over time, I’m sure, shake off this dependency or need of others. Right now, Bill is excepting himself, and that’s a great first step.