‘Plainsong for our secular times’
Written and directed by David Harrower.
As you listen to A Slow Air you applaud the art of storytelling. The Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile is now contained within ‘Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland’. One day, sometime, David Harrower’s 2011 play will be in there and part of Scotland’s ‘rich story heritage’. Unaffected, moving, A Slow Air is that good.
For the time being Ayr based Borderline Theatre has brought this play to the King’s after touring it through 17 Scottish venues – and 1 Welsh. It is easily portable: two bentwood chairs on a slightly raised platform stage and three-fold back flats with opaque windows that admit white, blue, or amber light. Daniel Padden’s quiet sound design is pitch perfect – Celtic strings, viola (?) and piano. It all creates a spare, open, space for two actors and an exceptional script.
Morna and Athol are brother and sister who have not seen or spoken to one another for 14 years. She, a single mother, stays in Edinburgh, off the Dalry Road; he, with wife Evelyn, is out in Houston, Renfrewshire, fifteen minutes’ drive from Glasgow airport, which is significant because it is 2007, and a short while after a green Cherokee Jeep loaded with propane gas canisters was driven straight at the glass doors of the terminal building.
Joshua, Morna’s 20 year old son is fascinated by that attack, probably because it has already acquired the vivid colours of the graphic novels that he loves to read, the comic strip immediacy of his sketches and drawings. They may have been crap terrorists and anyway “fanatics are hard to draw” but unwitting uncle Athol had been inside their house to give an estimate for a floor tiling job. Joshua, never seen, always reported, has all the qualities of the eejit young artist: maddening, unpredictable, lovable. It is Joshua who, in wacky fashion, would bring Morna and Athol back together.
Brother and sister come forward and talk and explain in turn. Pauline Knowles is ballsy, defiant, Morna, who is just about holding it together, despite seriously hard breaks. Morna cleans for alliterated Rosie and Randolph in their massive house in the Grange and in their empty flat in the New Town. She hits on the idea of using the flat for Joshua’s 21st. Pure brilliant! Lewis Howden’s performance as Athol is more reflective, more crumpled than wired, but nonetheless absorbing. Athol hates golf but has to try and play it to get business. We are treated to one botched round. In sum, mellow ‘Let There Be Love’ by ‘Simple Minds’ for him; & ‘U2s’ provocative ‘Pride (In the Name of Love’) for Morna. Hence Joshua, of course.
It is the innate sense of grounded, familial, story that you get – and gets you. Athol narrates. Morna responds in kind. Parents rest on sofa suites and live safe behind their double-glazing. Place and locality are everywhere: on the bus over the Bridges, Dick Place, Craigiehall, the Black Bitch pub in Linlithgow. SupaSnaps stores are on the High Street and Atholl marvels that Joshua could sleep well on a budget IKEA mattress.
David Harrower is the writer of Blackbird (2005), a recent production of which was reviewed on this site as ‘Outstanding’. Plainsong for our secular times, A Slow Air, is gentler, but no less compelling.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 22 May)
Visit A Slow Air homepage here.