‘Blackbird’ (Summerhall: 26 February – 1 March ’14)

“An outstanding performance from both cast and crew… the kind of production which makes it impossible to imagine the play in anyone else’s hands”

Editorial Rating: Outstanding

First performed in 2005, Blackbird is a terrifying play.  It’s terrifying because of its subject matter: a sexual relationship between a 12-year-old girl and a middle-aged man.  It’s terrifying because it highlights the lifelong consequences, both for the victim and her abuser.  But more than that, it’s terrifying because it dares to ask some forbidden questions – evoking just the slightest touch of sympathy for the devil, and challenging us to wonder how a once-decent man can possibly have fallen so far.  It’s morally troublesome, sexually explicit, and profoundly disturbing at times.

A decade after her defilement – and now a young woman – Una returns unexpectedly, determined to confront her abuser Ray.  Ray, in the meantime, has admitted his sins and served his time in prison, and seems to have re-built a modestly respectable life.  But that, of course, isn’t quite the full story; at the heart of the play is a series of well-paced revelations, which lead the audience through the gamut of possible responses to such a shocking tale.  And they’re all delivered through a single, credible dialogue, a masterclass in exposition done well.

But all that counts for nothing if the actors aren’t up to the task – and in Greg Wagland and Romana Abercromby, Blackbird finds the cast such a challenging script demands.  Both actors bring a reckless intensity to their roles, an urgent mutual desire to tell their shared tale.  As Una, Abercromby is sassy and bold, coolly aware of the power she now wields – a veneer which makes it all the more shocking when the true impact of the abuse is finally revealed.  Wagland, meanwhile, presents a desperate, imploring Ray, yet shows a hint of imperiousness too; it’s a many-layered performance, that delivers a lot more subtlety than first meets the eye.

While the principal actors each have their moments in the spotlight, the pivotal scene belongs to Abercromby.  As Una recalls how her life unravelled, she’s helped by Jon Beales’ haunting sound design – which carries just enough echoes of a seaside town at midnight to transport us into her painfully-remembered world.  It’s details like that which make this production so impressive, and Abercromby’s words are perfectly synchronized with the soundscape.  The whole play, in fact, is flawlessly well-performed.

Firebrand Theatre bill their production as a “site-specific staging”, which is rather stretching the point, but director Richard Baron does make excellent use of the unconventional space at Summerhall.  He turns the old-style lecture theatre into a claustrophobic and uncompromising arena – a courtroom where the audience sits in uneasy judgement on both accuser and accused.  And Baron and the actors have crafted a restlessly physical performance, using constant movement to stoke the pressure without ever feeling unnatural or forced.

If there’s a criticism to make of Harrower’s script, it’s that his symbolism is often heavy-handed: the sordid nature of the story is reflected by a squalid, rubbish-strewn stage.  And the narrative stops more than it ends, as though even the playwright didn’t know quite how to respond to his worrying final revelation.  But this is an outstanding performance from both cast and crew – the kind of production which makes it impossible to imagine the play in anyone else’s hands.  Firebrand’s reputation preceded them to Edinburgh, and it’s clear that reputation is very much deserved.


Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 27 February)

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