Mouthpiece (Traverse: 5 – 22 Dec.’18)

“Knockout performance: quick, fierce, and smart but always on the edge.”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

As Edinburgh plays go, this one is outspoken. Its audience is there to be stuffed and startled. Do you ‘live’ or do you ‘stay’ in Edinburgh? Whatever, wherever, you are unlikely to say – as you look out over the city – “See they flats?”. For a start the grammar’s wrong: amusing, sure, but plain wrong unless you’re local and out of school. Second, those flats are way over there “in the bit nobody looks at”. Not Muirhouse, as it happens, but more likely on the Southside, in Gracemount or Craigmillar. That’s where Declan (17) lives with his mother, her boyfriend, and his little sister, Sian. Declan’s father killed himself when Declan was seven. He was an alcoholic and everyone says Declan will end up just like him.

Libby (46) is not from Morningside, but possibly close to; the Grange maybe, or even Fairmilehead which always sounds nice. For Libby is nice and her mother listens to BBC Radio 4. Mouthpiece tells the story of Declan and Libby; posh woman who used-to-be-a-writer meets radge schemie. In the end it is perfectly possible to consider it a love story but it’s Declan’s love for Sian that really touches you.

This play’s energy pours out of Declan. It’s pure, vehement fun one minute – a verbal battering of Libby’s proper speech (and attitudes mebbe?) – but then it’s full of despair and longing the next. Lorn Macdonald delivers a knockout performance: quick, fierce, and smart but always on the edge: “I ken what precarious means, I’m no daft”.

Neve McIntosh as Libby can fall back on herself and land safely, even comfortably, by the end. She has the background and the education that is not available to Declan. She uses ‘Professional’ status as a defensive excuse that will make you queasy. McIntosh’s performance is finely judged; never provocative or clever but – if anything – rather shy and vulnerable. But she has two parts to play: one, with Declan, and the other with us, an audience of posh cunts. (Sorry, but that’s how it is and you’d better get used to the word if you’re going to see Mouthpiece). Libby talks to us about her story, ‘her’ play. Was it ever Declan’s?

Designer Kai Fischer and writer Kieran Hurley frame the work within a stark rectangular set that Libby steps easily in and out of. The shock quotient when Declan does the same goes off the scale. Projected text is used to identify place and time and to underwrite the action (as if penned by Libby). When that fractures and Declan disputes what is happening is both unsettling and dramatic. It also arrests a formal, ‘meta’ narrative before it gets too precious.

Mouthpiece is artistic director Orla O’Loughlin’s last show at the Traverse before she goes to London’s Guildhall. It displays the same drive and attack that distinguished her Devil Masters from 2014. There may be no expensive New Town interior to trash – Hurley’s script does that all by itself – but her hold on what matters is just as tight and uncompromising. The play will not bring much comfort and cheer for Advent but it does send you out with an important sense that the hurt and the dispossessed are never far way. Little Sian’s name might mean ‘God’s precious gift’ but no-one is giving Declan any presents this Christmas.

The applause came in fast and loud at the final blackout. Too fast. The performances are outstanding and deserve it but Mouthpiece is one of those plays that is yelling at yous to shut up and think.

outstanding

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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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.

nae bad_blue

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 1 November)

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