Four Steps Back was presented by the University’s English Literature Department Play in support of Voluntary Service Overseas in order to support disadvantaged communities.
At the bar of the Royal Dick gastropub, in the heart of Europe’s largest privately-owned arts complex, Robert McDowell the man who makes Summerhall happen, is tucking into steak done rare. “The secret of a good production,” he opines, “is that it uses, rather than hides, the space it’s in.”
“He’s not wrong” I think as later that night when the Current Mrs Dan and I take our seats in the Red Lecture Theatre. Strung right across the space is a washing line bedecked in glittering crimsons and saffrons – there is also a paisley Knightsbridge scarf which I am sure I saw in Armstrongs not so long back. The lighting is moody, the divide between house lights and stage is blurred.
Rekha, the first in a line up of four short new scripts, is a reflection on the human scale of great conflicts. Rajesh (powerfully played by Satnaam Dusanj) recounts the story of how he and his childhood playmate, Rekha, got caught up in an outbreak of interreligious violence while out playing. Rajesh’s innocent love of Rekha is beyond the ken of his brother Sanjay, who is old enough and wise enough to know that hatred trumps all else.
The brooding Dusanj is perfectly contrasted by the gleeful mischief of Arrti Singh in the title role. From the moment she enters through the audience she captivates, conjuring up both the reality and Rajesh’s idealised memories of Rekha. Sporting a magnificent pair of braided pigtails, suggestive that the Vikings and their valkyries might have sailed up the Sutlej, Singh gives as well as takes leaving space and pace in all the right places.
Alexei Veprentev as Sanjay and Maria Kheyfets as Indrani are the icing on the cake, squeezing every drop of nuance from writer Michael Chakraverty’s complex simplicity.
Rekha would be a very sombre piece, except that producers hit upon two veins of comic gold: small and playful actress poking her head through the glittering crimsons and saffrons on the washing line as she hides and seeks with Rajesh; as well as bearded actor playing a nine year old having a strop at his mum for not letting him go out and have fun. It’s the bitter sweet tamarind in the mix that brings out the darker flavours.
The staging for Maria Williamson’s Leaving Mary could not be more different. Dezie is sitting on a capacious armchair having his fine head of hair combed by his wife, Mary. Dezie is a talker with a well polished repertoire of blarney. Mary is quieter, stiller waters running deep. Already there is divergence between what is spoken and unspoken.
When their son Michael visits home from London, bringing with him their grandson Danny, the gulf widens and Mary’s struggle with dementia become more apparent. Michael’s domestic situation, he is separated from Danny’s mother, drags up old issues relating to Mary’s postnatal depression and Dezie’s love of the drink. In her confusion Mary struggles to delineate past traumas from present pain.
If there is justice in the world then it will not be long before Leaving Mary starts being mentioned in the same breath as Conor McPherson’s The Weir which I first saw on a visiting weekend in 1997. “But it’s just people sitting around telling stories.” I whined to my own father, also Michael, as we took a walk round Sloane Square during the interval. “Ah Danny,” came his response, “would that not be the point?”
Angela Milton as Mary provides the evening’s most sophisticated performance. When she moves, she moves. When she’s still, she’s still. She inhabits the character most successfully. Never does she allow us to feel pity for Mary. She captures the essential tragedy sure enough, but her reactions to her fellow players are what put her performance into orbit.
As Dezie (Toby Williams) and his pal Leo (Joey Thurston) talk through their problems in the local we know exactly who they are talking about. This is not just because Williamson is such a phenomenal sketcher of personality and persona, but because Milton has breathed life into every aspect of her character.
Daniel Omnes as Michael completes this well rounded ensemble, delivering the cosmopolitan contrast which so unsettles Dezie.
Toby Williams makes his second appearance of the night as Callum in A Fortiori. Dale Neuringer’s kitchen sink drama chronicles Laura’s passage through shiva, the ritualised Jewish mourning period. Laura’s husband has died suddenly, her brother-in-law Callum is the last house caller of four who have each undertaken the mitzvah of a home visit to the bereaved.
As with Laura’s friends Caroline (Jillian Bagriel) and Melinda (Emeline Beroud) as well as her mother (Lorraine McCann), Callum has an agenda all his own, somewhat removed from Laura’s immediate needs as a grieving widow. Neuringer unflinchingly examines how we express our innate self absorption even in our supposed altruism.
The staging is the most involved of the night – shelves and nick-nacks, tables and chairs, portions of comfort food and the essential covered mirror. The effect is to centre the drama, focusing the energy onto Blanca Siljedahl as Laura. As she is buffeted by unwelcome advice from her nearest and dearest Siljedahl maintains an introspective repose which not even the expanding buffet can penetrate.
It’s a shame the mirror hangs on the far stage right wall and is not free standing. The Current Mrs Dan (a shiksa) doesn’t notice the business of each visitor uncovering it to check their reflection. It’s a great device, as is McCann’s use of air freshener to intimate Laura’s mother’s fussy intrusion as she starts cleaning the house.
McCann, a stalwart of the Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group, has a flawless accent, just as Beroud does a great line in first world problems. I’m just not sure the cast have remembered the funny though. Siljedahl establishes and maintains a great sounding board, but the comic echos don’t come through. We don’t need to live her grief so exactly.
The disconnect between Neuringer’s script and director Matthew Jebb’s staging is to be lamented. On a double bill with Leaving Mary there is serious potential for a successful Fringe run. But the round peg of dark Jewish comedy needs to be much better fitted into the square peg of ‘50s era British social realism.
Blitzed by Rebecca Leary closes the night with a bang. Sarah lives in a fantasy world. With the bombs of WWII falling all around her neighbourhood, who can blame her? In the aftermath of a particularly hard pounding Sarah’s sister, Toffy, tries to reach her in more ways than one.
Blitzed was the least ready of the four performances. I was never entirely sure what was going on. Who is Lizzie, the other worldly girl always on stage but only acknowledged by Sarah? Is she real, was she ever? Why is Sarah so disconnected from her family, even though they live so close by? What has become of the menfolk away fighting?
If feels like the script has been foreshortened to fit into the night and that quite a lot of essential signposting (as happened in wartime) has been removed to disorientate the enemy. According to the programme Leary’s original intention had been to present the play in Dundonian dialect. The alien phonetics were removed though, the thinking being that the results would be too confusing for civilized Edinbuggers.
As it was a claustrophobic script was hesitantly presented. By the end understanding what was being said seemed of slender consequence. Ideally, time would have permitted flashbacks and context to enlighten the plot. As it was the script could have been much more artfully tailored to contour what could be shown in the time allowed.
Hopefully, with a greater supply of props, script and theatrical devices the tightly packed, closely guarded mysteries of the play can be revealed to the waiting world.
Four Steps Back was presented in support of Voluntary Service Overseas in order to support disadvantaged communities. More information can be found at www.vso.org.uk
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 27 February)
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