How do we share when we are afraid of showing people the mess? And how do we talk about something when it feels as if we are speaking a different language? These are the questions writer and director Mwansa Phiri asks in her Edinburgh Festival Fringe debut, waiting for a train at the bus stop.
Yaisa plays Chilufya, a poet ready to get her edge back, leads us through her relationship with just-a-friend Paul. Ready to drop men and focus on herself, Chilufya (or Chili) introduces us to her poetry, her family and the Zambian oral traditions that draw her back to her late mother.
Coercively controlling relationships fall on us slowly, methodically. This is exactly how Phiri presents Chili’s story. By interweaving themes of language and identity, Phiri presents the destructive power that coercive control has over self-assuredness. With an unceasingly waning confidence, Chilufya leans on her kin for guidance, but when everyone is speaking in an unfamiliar voice, she is lost on where to place her trust. Zambian storytelling, movement, and language continually interrupt Chilufya, and act as a form of detachment. In trying to find her own voice, she is left isolated from those she must rely.
Chilufya continually draws us back into familiar moments. Ideas that at first produce joy and laughter are gradually redefined by new and uncomfortable framing. Tentatively to begin, and then with an overwhelming lack of control, we follow Chilufya’s descent into fear and uncertainty. Yaisa moves effortlessly across the stage, pulling us eagerly through scenes with a charming candour. The story catapults its audience through time and space, never indulging too long in one moment but leaving just enough room to take in its impact.
With a competent blend of voice-overs, projection, and special lighting effects, the set is never left incomplete. It is by no means difficult for charismatic and energetic actor Yaisa to fill the space and yet, bolstered by the visual and sound effects of the play, it feels as if the room is constantly bustling with characters. It is, in fact, easy to forget that there is only one actor there.
The production clearly has a cohesive design team, and it is a rare occasion when any of these aspects clash or overwhelm each other. Alongside Video and Projection Designer Virginie Taylor, Phiri crafts a beautiful unison between actor and projection. We are invited easily into Chilufya’s internal poetry and it allows a helpful lead through her problematic relationships which are often difficult to charter and define.
Lighting Designer Alex Forey, well utilizes the venue’s generous rigging and strikingly recreates the aforementioned train tracks which give the piece its name. The sound design and composition of Freddie Lewis is equally capable, transporting us through the constantly shifting spaces in Chilufya’s life and planting us within her feelings of joy, terror, and uncertainty.
The restraint with which Mwansa Phiri reveals the power of verbal abuse and manipulation allows a delicate exploration of how we can soften and shrink ourselves into someone unrecognisable. It is heart breaking to watch Chilufya try and regain control of her stage – a space that becomes too loud, too full and yet so incredibly isolating. Phiri is never heavy-handed in her metaphors and carefully lays out how coercive control can make pulling oneself free from a relationship near impossible.
My only complaint is that the play’s end appeared suddenly on our doorstep without much breathing room to realise how we got there. Sixty minutes is perhaps not enough time to fully conceive such a complex relationship and I only wish there was time to further explore its development.
Despite this, waiting for a train at the bus stop provides a clear insight into how controlling relationships can manifest out of nowhere and poison the senses. The team have collectively created a fantastically authentic piece of theatre that is captivating, dark and heart-breaking.
Recommended drink: A very yummy, salty, and strong margherita with a sting you only notice once it’s too late.
Catch waiting for a train at the bus stop between 4-13th, 15-20th, 22-27th at 14:50 at Summerhall TechCube 0. Tickets are available through the EdFringe Box Office.