How To Disappear (Traverse: 8 -23 Dec.’17)

Owen Whitelaw, Robert, with Kirsty Mackay as Isla.
Image: Beth Chalmers.

“Help yourself to creative energy …”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

 

You don’t associate Elgin with hoodies, or Percy Pigs come to that. Go see Morna Pearson’s How To Disappear, however, and you will. The broad Doric may be less surprising and – at this time of year – why not put Narnia, downsized and upstage, through a cupboard in a bungalow?

If this sounds funny, it is, but it is not light-hearted. Far out, maybe. Imagine finding a squashed pot of Angel Delight in your Christmas stocking and you’re some way there. Or, because this is a play of alternatives, you’ve been given 2 DVDs: ‘I, Daniel Blake’ and ‘Room’. Great films but nonstarters in the Ho Ho Ho! stakes.

That’s a deliberate choice of films, of course. Robert, 28, lives on benefits that the Department of Work and Pensions wants to relieve him of. He has not left his room for twelve years, near enough. He has not been outside since he was eight. In the absence of their parents his kid sister, Isla (14-ish) looks after him as best she can, so it helps when she is excluded from school. A benefits assessor, Jessica, has come to ask Robert some questions.

But that’s barely the half of it. There’s a glowing blue portal and a stage revolve to expose the full story. Exactly when it turns is, for the audience, quite exciting; for Robert it’s an obsessional, skin picking quest, but for his pet tarantula it’s an unfortunate accident; and for Jessica it’s spew and ‘Wow!’ all the way.

Help yourself to creative energy then. Certainly Robert does. Copies of ‘New Scientist’ are stacked up against the walls so there’s not much space for him to move around and check his various alarm clocks but this is one clever ‘mannie’ who – all innocent of the metaphor  – dumps his benefits assessment into his bedpan. Owen Whitelaw is excellent in what could be a raw and painful role but is actually agile and sympathetic. His sister, Isla, is more aware, more aggrieved and angrier with what – on the face of it – is a distressing existence. Kirsty Mackay has that awkward dual role as ‘adult’ carer and S4 pupil who is still getting mercilessly bullied at school. (Note for school Guidance staff – you get a mouthful). Jessica (Sally Reid) is a paper shuffling caricature to some extent but with Robert as her ‘client’ is happily saved.

There is redemption here, which is good for a Christmas production. It’s in the near constant humour for one thing and in the marvellous sense of release, of stepping out of the room that comes at the end. But it’s not an easy given and director Gareth Nicholls keeps the action pretty edgy, using plunging lighting effects (exemplary from Kai Fischer) and sound from Michael John McCarthy that begins, it seemed to me, with a nod to ‘Big Country’ and then funnels down to close in on Becky Minto’s box frame of a set.

We need plays with moral outreach and How To Disappear is definitely out there to bring us in. We’re with Robert because he wants to help his father be with his mother, which is where the plot line folds into the mystic portal and you wonder where you are. Just hang on to the fact that he shares his Milky Way with his sister. We’re with Isla because she won’t get lost and hangs onto her brother because she loves him. We’re even with Jessica because she too is a strung out case who does what she can to help people and, like Robert, she loves the ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’, which says it all really.

Star ratings get done over in the wash in this one: 3, 4, 3, 4 … ?

Isla         ‘D’you kain whit number the washin machine goes on at?

Robert  Nut.

By the end, it’s 4* from me for an original and entertaining play. Fabric conditioner for the soul!

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 8 December)

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Our Fathers (Traverse: 24 – 28 October ’17)

Rob Drummond (l) & Nicholas Bone (r)
Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic

“‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ this is not, as a caustic version makes clear.”

Editorial Rating:

4 Stars: Nae Bad

Yet this is a kind piece, just possibly milder and more forgiving than its writers first intended. Rob Drummond and Nicholas Bone got together – which is a mighty draw in the first place – and offer Our Fathers as a sincere appraisal of their own lives as the doubting sons of clergymen. Their text – for this is a messaging service too – is Edmund Gosse’s celebrated memoir Father and Son (1907) with its epigraph, ‘Belief, like love, cannot be compelled’.

 Written and performed by Rob Drummond and Nicholas Bone, I should add, which is testament to the play’s personal and affecting quality. Whilst they take the parts of Philip Gosse (Drummond) and Edmund (Bone), they are also themselves, appearing friendly and unassuming, and only getting cross with one another rather than with the world. If anyone disappoints, and it is as sorrowful as it is a raging disappointment, it is the God of their fathers, who has definitely messed up. ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ this is not, as a caustic version makes clear.

Gosse the father was a biologist as well as an evangelical churchman, putting him squarely in the round hole of being a Christian scientist. He could write Evenings at the Microscope (1859) and still find plenty of time to rubbish the idea of evolution. One of his vivid illustrations of a jellyfish is revealed in the church hall cupboard, upstage right. Karen Tennent’s jewel of a set, so precisely lit by Simon Wilkinson, is particularly successful at focusing attention. The Victorian underslip is puzzling (a beloved dead mother?) but the fossils next to the plain wooden cross speak volumes. And there’s the fishbowl in which to dunk the book – [Told you that they get cross]. There’s an available reference to Prospero, promising to drown his learning [Like hell he will!] but then you could see it as some inventive gloss on baptism, which Drummond is especially keen to dish and seeks audience support to do so.

In Chapter 1 of Father and Son Edmund Gosse writes, ‘Several things tended at this time to alienate my conscience from the line which my father had so rigidly traced for it’. That ‘line’ is in the severe  clerical dress, the chalked up 5th commandment, and in the earnest hymn singing, but there’s also the sheer size of Philip (Drummond) alongside the much slighter Edmund, who draws up his little chair to his father’s big table. So it’s amusing that it’s Nicholas Bone who stands firm against Rob Drummond’s pleading to ‘play’ the son and it’s sad when young Edmund’s prayers fail and his looked-for faith is nowhere to be seen.

But all told Our Fathers is an easeful piece. Drummond makes light of the ribbing he got at school for ‘being the son a preacher man’. Hopefully it was good-natured, for let’s presume that he was, indeed is, ‘the sweet talking son of a preacher man’. Both men – tricky to call them actors at this affectionate point – hold up photographs of their fathers, whose recorded voices we hear.

On reflection, which is very much the point, I’m with the storyteller of Genesis 1:31: ‘God saw everything that he had made [including sons], and, behold, it was very good.’ This original, deceptively modest work, is also very good at what it asks and does.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 25 October)

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Jury Play (Traverse: 3-7 October ’17)

“The fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Sometimes the power and excitement of a show begin long before you take your seat, and remain with you for several days after. For Jury Play, a detailed email briefing is circulated in advance of the performance/court appearance, creating intrigue into what the evening will entail: it’s worth saying at this point that this is in no way like your standard trip to the theatre. The excitement only builds as you go through “security”, enter the (optional) ballot to become a jury member, and start to leaf through your court information pack while taking in Emily James’s impressive and sizeable courtroom set.

Yet what, on the surface, appears to be conceived as an interactive courtroom drama, where the prosecution and defence present facts about a given crime and a resolution is reached by the audience/jury, what Jury Play peels away at is what effect the trial process has on individual members of the jury, specifically for trials that last for weeks.

At various points during the trial, voiceovers expressing jury members’ thoughts are overlaid with the action, which include worries about getting children to school, paying bills, what specific legal terms mean, and even staying awake. Snippets of video conversation between writers Dr Jenny Scott and Ben Harrison about the performance also add a pleasingly Brecthian feel and help break up some of the monotony of the trial itself. So far, so so. Everything changes in Act ii, however, when the formal trial is over and the power lies in the jury’s hands. I won’t give away all the spoilers, but I shall simply reveal that organised chaos ensues, and the meat of the piece really comes out as an intelligent, human, and common sense discussion into the way we conduct trials.

When it comes to the performance it is John Betts as Judge who commands the show, and with his hilarious doddery asides and sensitive chairing of the discussion in the second half of the piece, you feel like you’re in his space, and he decides at any given point how comfortable anyone is to feel. Helen Mackay is also excellent as the conscious “everyman” figure Janis, who just wants to do her duty, and the cast as a whole make the performance very accessible: the fourth wall isn’t so much broken as shattered, with a piece of it distributed to each and every person in the room.

For me, though perhaps a reflection on the subject matter it discusses, Scott and Harrison’s script is too laboured and lengthy at points – missing some crucial details to aid comprehension in the first half, and dragging out its point in the second. The ending, while interesting and fitting stylistically with the piece, also feels like a bit of a cop-out and rather abrupt – as if the ideas just ran out at that point and there was nowhere else to go.

Overall this is a fascinating insight into the legal system, what it’s like to be a jury member, and how seemingly unfit for purpose the whole setup is – especially for people like me who have very little knowledge of its intricacies. Jury Play is absolutely worth taking part in, if there’s any room left in the public gallery.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 5 October)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

Pleading (Traverse: 3 – 7 October ’17)

Kim Allan and Daniel Cameron
Photo: Oran Mor

““Everything is negotiable””

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Pleading is the first up of five plays in this season’s ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’. This is a spiky three-hander by Rob Drummond, surely a playwright on a roll; and there is something of a wrestling bout to its twists and holds. Heard as a radio drama on BBC4 in January, Pleading comes to the stage – but call it a mat – with a narrative thwack.

Michael (19) and Freya, his girl next door /one-time sweetheart, have been banged up in a foreign jail for three weeks now. They are brought together to talk to their assigned lawyer, Amelia Singh. Where exactly they are  is not given but they do face the death penalty for attempting to smuggle Class 1 drugs. That fate – and their flight itinerary: Singapore > Perth > Brisbane > prison – would suggest Malaysia or Thailand. No worries (really?), for Freya’s dad is a QC and in that part of the world “We’re not foreign, we’re British.” Er …? Cue Boris Johnson and the Road to Mandalay?

If ever a defence lawyer was gobsmacked and keeps talking, then it’s the calm and collected Amelia (Nicole Cooper). How to convince her jumpy clients to plead guilty and serve a prison sentence? Maybe then Daddy can come and flap his silk. “Everything is negotiable”, declares Amelia, but it helps if you keep your story straight and consistent. So, over 50 minutes, Freya and Michael ‘negotiate’ the possibilities of how heroin ended up in her backpack. It is conceivable that the truth is told at the end but who can tell? It’s always salutary to be reminded of our talent for lying.

It is an unsparing and sweaty tussle that is ably performed. Freya (Kim Allan) is more in control but her account is the more wayward. Michael (Daniel Cameron) is more fragile, even desperate. At the close they are hanging onto each other for support and the law is somewhere else entirely.

Director David Ian Neville has a good play for voices to work with. Movement is conspicuous and time parcelled out by Amelia’s visits to the remarkably quiet prison. There is credible tension and there is sympathy and anxiety but as a drama I felt it wanted more fear and a lawyer on the ropes.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 3 October)

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My Country (Traverse: 11 – 13 May ’17)

Penny Layden (Britannia) & Christian Patterson (Cymru).
Photo: Sarah Lee, NT

“A cocktail of feelings: a little sweet and pleasantly bubbly, with just the right amount of bitterness.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Public opinion is a funny thing. A dramatic shift occurs in our society and suddenly everyone has something to say about it. Which is wonderful, of course. The more of us who care about what happens in our country, the better. But one of the questions that people always seem to ask in times like this is; “Do you remember where you were?” Do you remember where you were when the Twin Towers were attacked? …When you heard Michael Jackson had died? …When Trump was elected President?

Now, do you remember where you were on the morning of 24th June 2016? Brexit Day. GB hands the European Union ‘our’ divorce papers. From that day, the word spread around the country like a hectic rash, spouting from the voice of every radio station, newspaper and neighbour. It was unstoppable, all-consuming and tense, yet it seemed to arouse a willingness in the people to debate and engage with the current events of our nation.

So what if the voices of these ordinary people from across our great lands were trumpeted aloud for all to hear? A creative way of bringing about social change, perhaps? Or a spark that will encourage us to listen, and prevent the fire of the debate extinguishing? The National Theatre seemed to think so. And when the NT starts to roll with an idea, it tends to pay off. Headed up by the company’s own Artistic Director, Rufus Norris, My Country came to the Traverse Theatre last week as part of its UK tour, bringing with it the voices of these people for us to hear.

We are immediately welcomed to a boardroom by Britannia, played by Penny Layden. Olivier-award-winning Katrina Lindsay’s simple yet effective set is businesslike and blue, complete with water cooler and official-looking desks, as well as a row of ballot boxes to remind us why we are there. In come the regions: Caledonia, Cymru, East Midlands, Northern Ireland, North East, and South West, with Britannia as our Westminster. A strong set of seven, each actor representing the heart and soul of their respective parts of a still United Kingdom. And so the debate ensues.

While the cast are solid overall, there are a few standout performance among them. Chris Patterson as the booming voices of Cymru gives a performance that is both buoyant and vulnerable, shifting from brash old pub-dweller to the touching voice of a thirteen year old who only wishes to see the good in others. Equally captivating is Laura Elphinstone as the voices of the North East. Warm, honest and heartbreaking in her moments, she is fantastic to watch. But the glue holding the regions together is Penny Layden’s Britannia. Representing the heart of our government, Layden’s portrayal of Westminster’s politicians is spot on, generating both laughs and anger.

There is, at times, a slight risk of these performances dancing on the borderline of caricature, but the actors never cross it; these are real people with real stories to tell, and their words are treated with respect. Throughout the performance, Britannia constantly urges us to simply “listen”, despite our own opinions. And we do.

A verbatim piece could quite easily turn boring. In Edinburgh, where 74% of voters chose to remain, an audience could have been so opposed to the opinions of  ‘Leavers’ that they shut down completely. Yet that night in the Traverse Theatre, the opposite seemed to happen. We wanted to listen, and this is one of those special productions that generates a cocktail of feelings: a little sweet and pleasantly bubbly, with just the right amount of bitterness. It makes you angry and sad and happy all at the same time, and you’re not sure whether you should laugh, scoff or just let go and cry. Sadly only in Edinburgh for three nights, the company continue to move around the UK until its final performance on, appropriately, the 24th June 2017. Jump on a plane, train or bus and go and see this show. The question I would ask you in ten years is: do you remember where you were when you saw My Country? Don’t be one of the people whose answer is no.

 

outstanding

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Reviewer: Rachel Cram (Seen 12 May)

Go to My Country, National Theatre on tour

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Girl in the Machine (Traverse: 3 – 22 April ’17)

Rosalind Sydney as Polly.
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“Galvanising”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Time was when wireless simply meant a radio and Mr Chips taught Latin and Greek. Now we’re practically Wi-Fi dependent and it’s definitely ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’ and ‘Hello’ Citizen Chip. Soon enough you’ll be living beyond 120 and if you’re lucky the worst you’ll suffer physically is an itchy forearm when your chip is updated. Mentally, however, you might get fried.

That’s where Stef Smith’s galvanising new play has us: in the near enough future when ‘the gap is getting smaller between the human and the hardware’. ATMs now ask how you’re feeling and robots are cleaning up on the wards. Owen, a Charge Nurse, might be out of a job soon. The only ‘shit’ left to deal with is what his lawyer wife, Polly, does for a living, for the outside world is going down the pan big time. Stress is a plug-in on her iPad Pro. Polly is not in a happy place, although she does love Owen and he loves her. He’s just brought her a present in a black box to help her feel better, which it does, but she really should have just stayed with the nice hot bath, the scented candles and a glass or two of Merlot.

It’s a container load of a drama, ingeniously designed and neatly packaged. Owen and Polly inhabit a rectangular box, complete with geometric floor covering and modular seating. It’s a neutral, pastel space inside a post-industrial shell. It must have been tempting to put an Amazon Echo (or Samsung Smart TV) centre stage; as it is, Polly is freaked out by a data file eavesdropped from her memory of better days whilst Owen appreciates how ‘our house looks much bigger with no electricity in it’.

This must be the angst of a neo-Millennial generation – and not that of those who worry whether their passports should be blue or burgundy. Polly (Rosalind Sydney) and Owen (Michael Dylan) are in their 30s, see their neighbour as a man ‘whose face looks like a smashed circuit board’, and yet wonder at their growing inability to feel for each other. Polly is digitally hooked, ‘twitches’ for a connection and finally, fatally, makes one. Owen resists the circuitry. That this is a loving relationship in crisis is never in doubt – such is the quality of the performance – but that the destruction of an intelligent woman is caused by a gadget on speed is more of an ask. The script also suffers from some philosophical surges that are best characterised by Polly’s despairing repetition of ‘I can’t stop thinking’.

Michael Dylan as Owen.

The villain of the piece is the arch voice of the Black Box programme. It seduces indiscriminately and without mercy, because it’s a rogue bot. The hero is certainly Orla O’Loughlin whose sympathetic, human, direction moves her two actors every which way along a traverse stage, not least to the killing beat of Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ (!), and who also holds them together in still exchanges that in less capable hands could sound derivative and forced.

Back in 1934, in Mr Chips’ last days, Black Magic chocolates were a year old. He probably gave Mrs Chipping a box of them and didn’t worry a jot about their tantalising centres. And then came the digital age and a virtual Raspberry Heaven (or Caramel Caress).

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 5 April)

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Grain in the Blood (Traverse: 1 – 12 Nov.’16)

l to r: Frances Thorburn (Violet), Sarah Miele, Andrew Rothney, John Michie, Blythe Duff. Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

l to r: Frances Thorburn (Violet), Sarah Miele, Andrew Rothney, John Michie, Blythe Duff.
Photos: Mihaela Bodlovic

“This hair-trigger of a play”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

What is it about valleys? There’s the BBC’s Happy Valley and Edward Norton in Down in the Valley, also far from ‘happy’, and – seminally – there’s the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which is as good a place as any in which to locate Rob Drummond’s latest enthralling work. Once upon a time, ‘for hundreds of years in the valley everything was just so’, but then the thanksgiving poetry ran out, like blood. Time now, then, for a spell of compassionate release.

That’s the hope anyway, and it is hope that supports Sophia, whose grand-daughter Autumn, needs a kidney transplant if she is to live much beyond her twelfth birthday. Isaac, Sophia’s grown son, has it in him to help but naturally, dramatically, it is not as easy as that. In fact, after 85 minutes, it has all still to be decided, either by the words of a child terribly wise beyond her years or out of the barrels of a 12 bore shotgun. Orla O’Loughlin’s direction respects this hair-trigger of a play right to its showdown.

The action rises over 3½ days, counted as ‘three sleeps’ by Autumn, who is brat reporter and ancient Chorus combined. She knows the ‘Verses of the Harvest’ by heart and the rhythmic invocation of the Grain Mother as provider of health and happiness- sad joke –  sounds solemn and serious, ‘even though She doesn’t fucking exist’. That’s the thing about Autumn (Sarah Miele): she has that unnerving sacrilegious streak that adults can’t manage.

So, there is proper tension down on the farm. There’s even a game of ‘Truth or Dare?’ that contains the greatest reveal of them all, which is wickedly ironic as Isaac (Andrew Rothney) is described as ‘low risk’. Sophia (Blythe Duff) needs to believe that assessment whilst Burt (John Michie), is there as the phlegmatic companion to threatening circumstance. These two play out a nice challenge of ‘Would you kill scumbags to save your daughter?’, which just digs deeper into the disturbing, teasing, ethical dilemmas that Drummond delights in. Go to his Uncanny Valley for starters.

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The remote rural location is part of the piece. Where better to unearth the unsettling and the rooted? The harvest moon can glint off Isaac’s blade and there’s the suffering of Auntie Violet’s horse to put alongside Sophia’s claim that ‘We’re all animals’, which might be what her veterinary practice has taught her. Her house is modern, of machined and polished wood, where you might expect low ceilings, wood smoke and warped timbers. The spare, snappy dialogue and careful movement suits the space, whose back wall slides away to show Autumn’s bed with its blood drip stand, or the barn, site of an earlier, bloodier horror. Introducing classical tragedy for our times, anyone?

Intrigued? You should be, because this is fascinating theatre, still and severe in its way, but emotionally resonant, well-focused and very well performed.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 1 November)

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