Until November 17
THE ARTIST MAN AND THE MOTHER WOMAN
Until November 17
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Not, perhaps, since 1973 – when John McGrath and his 7:84 theatre company staged their legendary play The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black Black Oil – has Scottish musical theatre packed a political punch as hard as Glasgow Girls. Like The Cheviot, Cora Bissett and David Greig’s musical about seven Drumchapel schoolgirls’ successful campaign against the deportation of a refugee family seems destined to be remembered as a landmark show in Scottish theatre.
Boasting a talented, all-singing, all-dancing cast of young women as the titular girls, and fine performances from more experienced actors Callum Cuthbertson and Myra McFadyen in the crucial supporting roles, the piece is as smartly crafted and hard hitting a work of popular theatre as I have seen in a very long time.
From the bright and bouncing highs (the return of the girls’ Kosovan Roma friend Agnesa and her family) to the terrifying lows (immigration officers smashing into an asylum seeking family’s home in a dawn raid) the songs, the impressively diverse music and the high energy choreography are irresistible. As, indeed, is the play’s central argument, that there is something obscenely cruel in an asylum system which establishes refugee children in Scottish communities and schools, only to remove them violently from their homes in the early hours of any given morning.
Played on Merle Hensel’s deceptively versatile, grey high-rise set, Glasgow Girls (which is co-produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and a host of collaborators) might stand accused of preaching to the converted (such as long-established Scottish lefties, like yours truly), were it not for the fact that, in both subject and form, its most appropriate audience is Scotland’s teenagers. If the response of my deeply affected 14-year-old daughter is anything to go by, Bissett and Greig seem set to recruit a new generation of asylum rights activists.
If the NTS show is master of its genre, Morna Pearson’s odd little play The Artist Man And The Mother Woman is a topsy-turvy experiment in theatrical form. Not so much a dark comedy, as a comedy followed by darkness, its hour-and-a-half might almost be divided into two distinct plays.
The first of those dramas – in which we are introduced to thirtysomething art teacher Geoffrey Buncher (Garry Collins), who still lives at home with his creepily peculiar mother, Edie (Anne Lacey) – combines a humorous contemporary Anglo-Doric (a version of Elgin-bred Pearson’s mother tongue) with caricature, double-entendre and the comedy of disgust (think Edie removing dog shit from her son’s shoe with a kitchen knife, which is then barely wiped and returned to the cutlery drawer). By the time the Bunchers’ retired policeman neighbour Thomas (Lewis Howden) arrives, talking about “Mrs Krimble’s bush” (“a real feast for the eyes”), one feels as if one has been transported back in time, so much does the play resemble a cross between The Good Life, The Beechgrove Garden and a Carry On film.
As Edie becomes increasingly resentful of Geoffrey’s efforts to find a girlfriend, the piece takes a sudden (if much signposted) turn. The clumsiness of this volte-face is, like the ugly scene changes, typical of the play’s lack of structural craft.
As Pearson turns to address subjects of great interest to modern criminology and psychology, she is (to borrow a phrase from Kenneth Tynan) “frivolous, even when she is being serious.” Failing, by turns, in both comedy and tragedy (even if succeeding in its affectionate parody of Morayshire vernacular), this play is a curious main stage choice for recently appointed Traverse artistic director Orla O’Loughlin.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 4, 2012
© Mark Brown