‘Buchan is seamless, fluid and graceful. If he were Salome, I’d have the head of John the Baptist brought to him with an apple in its mouth.’
“I’m not entirely sure I understood that,” I confided to no one in particular walking out into the thick Spring mist. The questions raised by Gerda Stevenson’s lunchtime script continued to buzz round my head as I wandered through the exhibition of Edward Lear watercolours at the National Gallery. It’s a sign that the magic of theatre is working I suppose. There’s a similarity in the way Lear represented mid-nineteenth century Greece and the seascape of myths conjured by Stevenson.
Both evoke folk memories held deep in the collective conscience. Both present skilled artists with a canvas for intricate flair – none of Lear’s paintings is larger than A3 while a Play, a Pie and Pint runs not much more than an hour. And neither entirely satisfy.
The muted colours of the Scots dialect run from Stevenson’s pallet into something of a monologue delivered by Amy Conachan as the Skeleton Wumman. The plot is an interplay of narratives woven from Inuit tales and mythology, offset by the innermost thoughts of a contemporary young girl.
There is an Inuit tale of a fisherman who ensnares bones of a forgotten young woman, cast out by her disapproving father. When the seemingly lifeless, barnacled relic of a past tragedy drinks a single tear shed in sorrow by the fisherman, her flesh and animation return, in turn ensnaring him. In Stevenson’s narrative the Skeleton Wumman might also stand for Sedna, Inuit goddess of the deep.
The young girl portrayed by Conachan is severely disabled. We find her at home being cared for by her father, an oldskool fisherman stuck on land by the inclement season. We hear her innermost thoughts, ideas and perspectives, which she is otherwise unable to communicate especially to her uncommunicative father.
Conachan leads a trio of performers who somehow sprint the marathon. She is an extremely gifted performer, one who knows how best to present the results of her Royal Conservatoire of Scotland training (where she is currently studying). She is the glue holding the narratives together and does not come unstuck even as the script’s monologue starts to skirt the bounds of monotony. Conachan’s relationships with Buchan Lennon (as her Father and as the Young Swimmer who has caught her eye at the city pool) are truly enervating.
Buchan is seamless, fluid and graceful. If he were Salome, I’d have the head of John the Baptist brought to him with an apple in its mouth. He inhabits both characters more like a Game of Thrones warg than someone playing make believe. Every nuance is there. The Father is at once terrified of nappies, especially now his daughter’s becoming a woman, whilst also tender, attentive and affectionate. The Young Swimmer is shy but friendly, a breath of fresh exotic air. Buchan fills Kipling’s unforgiving minute in If with miles of distance run.
Completing the trio is Seylan Baxter. Noted as one of the small, but growing, number of players reintroducing the cello into Scottish traditional music, Baxter provides far more than a soundscape. She employs the electric cello for both music and sound effects. The beating heart, the familiar musical phrase, the playful twist, each is managed from a push pedal system allowing her to sample herself as merrily she rolls along. Sitting on the far left, I’ve got the best view of the pedal system in action. Not a foot wrong, although one time Baxter almost hands Buchan an umbrella instead of an inflatable rubber ring; happens to the best of us.
The props, set, lighting and sound were all of the highest standard. The gentle sobbing from the techies responsible for all those cues added not unpleasantly to the overall effect. This was a production of very high production values and higher ambitions, the more so for having hit almost every mark.
I’ll be thinking about Stevenson’s script long after Edward Lear’s watercolours have washed out of memory. Spooky, to the point of spine-tingling, Skeleton Wumman is however unfairly weighted between the trio on stage. But that Conachan is a thoughtful and compelling performer, one who carries much more than her own weight, the play might have foundered.
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 22 April)
Visit Skeleton Wumman‘s homepage here.