Various dates until September 29
My Shrinking Life
Seen at Tron, Glasgow
Touring until October 6
The Red Hourglass
Seen at National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
Touring September 19 to November 16
Reviewed by Mark Brown
A new play by Sharman Macdonald, exploring the lives of working-class women in Dundee in the 1930s; is it any surprise that Dundee Rep’s latest premiere is drawing the crowds as surely as if Macdonald’s daughter, Keira Knightley, was in town?
She Town may put bums on proverbial seats, but its heady mix of nostalgia and local interest is not enough to guarantee recently appointed Rep joint-artistic director Jemima Levick an artistic success. Indeed, as Macdonald’s play moves its ungainly way through its almost two-and-a-half hours, one can’t help but wish that Levick had demanded both major cuts and the services of a disciplinarian dramaturge.
The play is like a cake overloaded with far too many ingredients. Alex Lowde’s fine, impressionistic set (representing “the backies”; the back close of a Dundonian tenement) plays host to an almost dizzying array of issues. As the women (the play is refreshingly absent of male characters) queue to draw water from the standpipe, we are invited to consider dangerous childhood illness; unplanned pregnancy; prostitution; alcoholism; early bereavement; wage cuts at the jute mill; a major strike; the Spanish Civil War; and the famous visit to the Caird Hall of the legendary, African-American singer and communist Paul Robeson.
Any one of these subjects might make for an interesting play, but thrown together, as they are here, in a barely connected series of sketches, and one ends up with an overlong and dreadfully structured drama. In fairness, the piece does manage to sparkle from time to time; Macdonald’s writing is at its best when a young woman recounts, with a poetic passion, her encounters with Robeson.
However, too much of the piece plays by the rules of soft-boiled “popular theatre”. Barbara Rafferty does a typically professional turn as a predictably comic drunk. Young actress Molly Vevers is saddled with the character of Maeve, an obnoxiously stereotypical “happy whore”. When the play makes a jump cut from Dundee to war-torn Spain, one’s credulity (already sorely tested) collapses.
This production is graced with a lovely opening sequence (smart design and choreography evoking the labour in the mills); wonderfully committed, excellently employed performances from a large community cast; and some fine actresses (Angela Hardie and Morag Stark, to name but two). It’s a great shame, therefore, that the play itself is such a lolloping, directionless colossus.
If structural problems abound in Macdonald’s drama, they are far from absent from My Shrinking Life, the National Theatre of Scotland’s latest show, a collectively devised piece, directed by theatre maker Lies Pauwels, and conceived by its central performer Alison Peebles. Peebles – who is, both as actor and director, one of the most important figures in contemporary Scottish theatre – was famously diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in the year 2000. This piece is – or, at least, was at the outset – her attempt to contemplate her experience of living with the condition from a theatrical perspective.
Sad to say, I can’t help but feel that, much as she did with her NTS production of David Harrower’s Knives In Hens last year, Pauwels has not served Peebles’s story so much as made it her own. The Flemish director has a number of established (and, to my taste, modish and predictable) techniques. Depressingly, in this piece – which runs to 105 minutes and is set, nominally, in a crumbling NHS waiting room – she once again indulges her postmodern tendency to allow those techniques to overwhelm the content of the script.
To give Harrower’s beautiful play (an acknowledged classic, much performed globally) that treatment was bad enough. To do so with this project – which, as a new work, does not have the protected status of a classic – seems almost indecent. Pauwels is, no doubt, correct in her desire to broaden out from Peebles’s experience, but to do so with exactly the same kind of histrionics, screaming into microphones and puerile, bathetic juxtapositions of pop and classical musics (Gerry and the Pacemakers singing You’ll Never Walk Alone versus Bach’s St Matthew Passion) is, frankly, shocking.
There are moments (when the talented, young supporting cast are not being given emotionally misfiring things to do) when the piece does succeed in creating a strong, deeply affecting connection with Peebles’s experience. These, almost invariably, are the simplest moments in which Peebles reflects, often poetically and metaphorically, on the journey she has been forced to make. It is at those points that one realises that, in the midst of the self-consciously trendy director’s theatre that Pauwels has created, there is a shorter, clearer, more powerful play trying to get out.
The emotional stakes are lower in Alan Bissett’s The Red Hourglass, a highly entertaining, self-penned one-man show in which the author-turned-actor (and arachnophobe) challenges himself to play a series of spiders. Inspired by the book of the same title by naturalist Gordon Grice, Bissett’s comic play is set in an experiment tank in a Scottish zoological lab. Inside there are a number of anthropomorphised spiders; for instance, the tarantula (which lives in temperate countries, like Venezuela) is a puffed-up creature, full of the righteous, Bolivarian anger of President Hugo Chavez.
Bissett’s witty, well-observed writing combines well with his bold, shape-changing performance; the dangerous sexuality of the black widow spider, personified in black, high-heeled boots, is a particular treat. Whether you love or fear our eight-legged friends, this is a delightfully unusual piece of theatre.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 16, 2012
© Mark Brown