The mysteries explored – and provocative questions posed – in The Man on the Moor are well-articulated and undeniably fascinating. I just wonder if its blurring of fact and fiction was really necessary here, and if a podcast series, radio play or documentary-theatre format may have been a better mode for Dickins to present his findings.
A curious and somewhat understated one-man show at Underbelly Cowgate, The Man on the Moor starts with the true-life account of a man – still, to this day, unidentified – found dead on Saddleworth Moor in late 2015. His genetic and bodily profiling didn’t match with anyone reported missing – so, to all intents and purposes, this was a man who no one had noticed vanish. And – one would therefore assume – no one had missed. Isn’t that horrifying?!
The show turns into about something far larger than just an account to this one poor guy (as fascinating and intrinsically heartbreaking a mystery as it appears to be). The Man on the Moor poses a number of truly intriguing and unsettling questions, interesting enough to listen to (and indeed, contemplate yourself) to make the piece’s 1hr duration instantly worthwhile.
In this day and age, when we’re well-versed in how every pizza we order, event we ‘check in’ to and Snapchat nude we send is being eternally logged, the prospect that someone can slip entirely through that net and seemingly be unaccounted for a single record is mindblowing and – quite frankly – one of the most tragic prospects presented to me at this year’s Fringe. The fear behind that prospect is perhaps best articulated in something I happened to read recently: ‘What Orwell failed to predict was that we’d buy the cameras ourselves, and that our biggest fear would be that Nobody was watching.’
Max Dickins’ writing forces us to contemplate something similar happening to us and/or our loved ones. And asks whether its one of the most horrific and upsetting prospects of human existence of all. These mysteries aren’t particularly historical – they are happening right now, all around us. You sit there wondering how it is even possible to disappear without leaving a single trace these days. You learn, just as horrifically, of accounts where ‘missing’ people simply don’t want to be found. And those of individuals who are found, but no one seems to have missed them.
I hope the above makes it apparent that the questions posed really did, and still do, fascinate and capture my information. What was the problem then? I’m just not entirely sure the ‘theatre’ of the piece worked. In other words, I’m not entirely sure turning it into a play – with a central character and fairly linear narrative – really enhanced or added any interest to the (far more interesting) results of Dickins’ research.
The piece’s conceit is that Dickins (the performer, as well as writer) is a character in search of his own dad, missing for over 20 years. Upon discovery of ‘the Man on the Moor’, Dickins latches onto him – convinced he’s found his father. That’s about it, and it is performed with very minimal blocking. Dickins has an engaging voice (I wasn’t surprised to hear he is principally a radio presenter after the piece ended), but doesn’t have a particularly unique or commanding stage presence. Perhaps it would’ve been wrong for the central performance to have so much intensity or conviction that it overshadowed the content, but I think it could have done with just a little more.
In sum, blending fact with fiction here just didn’t do that much for me. The facts were already more than interesting enough to not need particular embellishment, and I can’t help but wondering if a podcast series, a radio programme or even more of a documentary-theatre format (where Dickins visited the Moor the event happened, and other similar ‘non-locations’ still haunted by the unexplained) may have been a little more of a natural fit for the content.