27, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh; until November 12
Ch Ch Changes, Citizens, Glasgow; until November 12
Reviewed by Mark Brown
New play writing in Scotland has taken a welcome shift, in recent months and years, away from domestic realism, and towards a theatre of the imagination. However, the growing ambition has rarely been reflected in the quality of the writing. 27, Abi Morgan’s new play for the National Theatre of Scotland and the Lyceum, is, sadly, yet another drama which falls into the category of “ambitious failure”.
The drama, which is directed by NTS artistic director Vicky Featherstone, begins auspiciously enough. A group of scientific researchers arrive at an isolated Scottish convent seeking the consent of 27 nuns, aged over 75, to take part in a transatlantic mental health study which will, in addition to annual testing, entail their brains being taken for scientific study upon their deaths. As well as contributing to a potential cure for Alzheimer’s disease, the Sisters’ consent will attract donations from the research institute to the convent.
It is a fascinating scenario, brimming with potential sources of dramatic tension: religion versus science; God versus Mammon; sexual abstinence versus sexual desire; professional ethics versus personal ambition (to name but a few). However, it is in precisely this plethora of subjects that Morgan’s erudite, yet overwrought play falters.
By the time that the brilliantly intellectual Sister Miriam (an excellent performance by Colette O’Neil) begins, entirely predictably, to lose her mental faculties, the drama is already beginning to heave under the weight of its criss-crossing plots and sub-plots. All eight characters (four nuns, four scientists) carry enough narrative for a play of their own. Despite the best efforts of a fine cast (led by the superb Maureen Beattie, as the tormented Sister Ursula), the drama (which runs to two hours and 40 minutes) simply looks exhausted by the time it reaches its pseudo-Chekhovian conclusion.
Martin O’Connor’s new play Ch Ch Changes – playing as part of the annual Glasgay! festival of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) arts and culture – is a less ambitious, but more complete theatre work. The title of this solo piece is, needless to say, inspired by the music of David Bowie; excerpts of which play while fine actor Grant Smeaton makes the on-stage costume changes required by five monologues for a very disparate group of gay, bisexual and transgender men. The drama’s focus upon the experiences of men of such different backgrounds, and sexual and gender orientations, makes for a richly varied, poignant and humorous evening’s theatre.
At the outset, we have a 50-year-old Glaswegian gay man taking a breather from the religious funeral of a former lover who never came out, either to his family or the wider world. In his youth, our speaker arrived in New York City, only for his delight in the city’s hedonistic freedoms to be punctured by the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
From there, we meet a heterosexual transvestite; an “80 per cent gay” bisexual man, struggling with the pain and guilt of leaving his wife and son; a self-confident and hilarious gay guy talking, 19 to the dozen, about his most recent house party; and a worker, seduced by his bisexual male boss, who finds himself in a bizarre ménage à quatre on an expensive holiday.
The “changes” of the play’s title are, on the political and social level, largely positive ones; from the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in Scotland in 1980 to the right to civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples in 2005. However, the barbaric murder of 28-year-old Stuart Walker in Cumnock last weekend (which some people believe to have been motivated by homophobia) suggests that we have many positive changes still to achieve.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 30, 2011
© Mark Brown