WHERE would the Traverse Theatre’s Edinburgh festivals programme be without Irish writers, actors and companies? The most cursory consideration of recent years – in which the theatre’s stages have been graced by such shows as Enda Walsh’s Medicine (2021), Michael John O’Neill’s This Is Paradise (2021 and 2022), Meghan Tyler’s Crocodile Fever (2019) and David Ireland’s Ulster American (2018) – show that the festival offerings of Scotland’s new writing theatre rely very heavily on Hibernian talent.

That pattern continues emphatically with Sonya Kelly’s stunning new play The Last Return (Traverse, until August 28). Presented by the excellent Druid theatre company of Galway, it may well be both the funniest and the most politically devastating play on the Fringe this year.

Set in a theatre in an unnamed metropolis, the drama depicts a queue for returns for the latest, must-see production by the acclaimed auteur director Oppenheimer. At the outset of the piece, a bow-tied academic (and “Head of the School of Oppenheimer”) and an assertive Scottish office worker establish a queue (incorporating the place-saving bag of an absent young person).

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Every attempt to involve the self-defined “ticket person” in the proceedings – by way of ringing the outsized service bell on her desk – is rebuffed vehemently. It is a naturalistic scene, of sorts, but one rendered deliciously comic by the vividness both of Kelly’s dialogue and the excellent actors’ characterisations.

As time goes on the queue is joined by a reserved sub-Saharan African woman and an American military pilot who is struggling with a personal history of remote-control murder. The increasingly strained communications between these characters destroy any lingering sense that this is a play about realistic characters who have good, solid reasons for needing to see the new show by Oppenheimer.

We are, with absolute uncertainty, in the precarious, unpredictable, darkly humorous world of great absurdist dramatists such as Eugene Ionesco and Edward Albee. Consequently, the writing is relentlessly funny, yet increasingly disquieting.

Typically of Druid, director Sara Joyce’s splendidly bold-yet-nuanced production boasts universally superb performances. The professor is played with glorious aloofness by Bosco Hogan, while Fiona Bell’s office worker is marvellously jagged.

The dignity of Naima Swaleh’s quiet refugee contrasts starkly with the feverish activity of Fionn O Loingsigh’s militaristic American. Anna Healy’s fabulously droll and, ultimately, uproariously combustible ticket person is – like the play’s startling conclusion – a tremendous revelation.

Every aspect of the production – from Francis O’Connor’s set and costumes to Michael John McCarthy’s sound design – is completely and flawlessly at the service both of Kelly’s scintillating script and Joyce’s perfectly attuned, quasi-surreal aesthetic.

The Edinburgh Festivals are – like contemporary theatre more widely – amply supplied with plays that are indisputably humanistic and well-intentioned. Few, however, will have the skill and the artistic insight to come to such a surprising and reverberating political conclusion as The Last Return.

There are times as a theatre critic, when one feels very much like the pretence-busting child in Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale The Emperor’s New Clothes. The artist’s reputation might go before them, their body of work might be decorated with dazzling gems, but the stage production in front of you right now stands as naked as a newborn babe.

Sad to say, reviewing Burn (King’s Theatre, run ended; touring Scotland until September 10) – the one-man dance theatre piece performed by the revered star of stage and screen Alan Cumming – is such an occasion. Presented by the National Theatre of Scotland (in co-production with the Edinburgh International Festival and The Joyce Theater, New York City), this contemplation of the life of Scotland’s national bard could – and should – have been a memorably original take on a man that we, here in Caledonia, tend to consider familiar to us.

The National: Burn. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.Burn. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

In reality, flitting, as it does, between very different, often too briefly considered, aspects of Burns’s life (as expressed in his many letters), the piece is horribly misconceived, dreadfully dishevelled and conspicuously under-prepared. Created by Cumming and choreographer Steven Hoggett, the show jumps erratically between the poet’s loves, his humiliating attempts to raise much-needed funds from sponsors, and a Saltire-dragging proclamation of Scots Wha Hae that is so garishly patriotic as to seem (unintentionally, one assumes) like satire.

These elements are expressed by means of spoken text (articulated with Cumming’s typical linguistic excellence) and unduly literal, often clumsy choreography. Almost as if they are aware of the show’s desperate lack of aesthetic coherence, Cumming and Hoggett have thrown the considerable resources of the co-producers at the piece.

Symbolic storms are evoked by Andrzej Goulding’s accomplished video designs and Matt Padden’s sound work. Much less effectively, a quill pen with which Cumming’s Burns writes continues (in a moment of daft technological wizardry) to scribble away after the performer has vacated the desk.

A scene in which Cumming – representing Burns during the time in Edinburgh in which he felt compelled to play up to the “ploughman poet” caricature – is dressed in numerous layers of attire is (presumably inadvertently) very silly indeed. An entirely misfiring image, it exemplifies a work in which depressingly little is achieved by way of expressing the human essence of the Bard.

I defer to no-one in my admiration of Alan Cumming. His one-man Macbeth, for example, remains, for me, one of the finest achievements in the 16-year history of the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS). Sadly, however, this attempt to capture Burns in dance-theatre is a comprehensive failure.

If the NTS’s opening gambit in the International Festival programme is a disaster, its Edinburgh Fringe show Exodus (Traverse, until August 28) is a bold, brave disappointment. Uma Nada-Rajah’s comic play about a cynical, self-serving, extremely right-wing Asian home secretary is laudable for its very palpable hatred of the odious Priti Patel.

The National: Aryana Ramkhalawon and Sophie Steer in Exodus. Photo: Tim MorozzoAryana Ramkhalawon and Sophie Steer in Exodus. Photo: Tim Morozzo

However, as it unfolds its increasingly outlandish story – involving a botched photo opportunity at the White Cliffs of Dover and a refugee baby in a designer handbag – the play contrives to miss its intended target. Nada-Rajah seems unsure as to whether she wants to emulate the biting political satire of Armando Iannucci, the radical farce of Dario Fo or the cartoonish violence of Quentin Tarantino.

Consequently, the play falls between these three stools, never managing to be funny enough or sharp enough in any of the genres it draws upon. A moment in which Asiya Rao (the fictionalised Patel, played by Aryana Ramkhalawon) suffers an agonising, deeply ironic injury is typical of a drama that too often goes for cheap laughs when it could be making a meaningful satirical comment.

There was probably little director Debbie Hannan could do about the script’s identity crisis. However, she could have put a stop to the flawed design concept which requires the actors to manipulate two stage revolves (one of which clattered into actor Sophie Steer – who is superb as the vicious Tory spin doctor Phoebe Bernays – during the performance I watched).

The conclusion of Exodus – which pulls out video footage of the memorable mass protest on Kenmure Street in Glasgow last year, which prevented the deportation of two South Asian Sikh asylum seekers – indicates a certain running-out of steam.

The play’s political heart is undeniably in a good and humane place, but, unfortunately, its artistic head is, confusedly, in several places at once.