Reviews: The Pitiless Storm, Spoiling, Small War & Race – Edinburgh Fringe



The Pitiless Storm

Assembly Rooms

Until August 24;

then touring until September 14




Until August 24


Small War


Until August 24



Assembly George Square Studios

Until August 25


Reviewed by Mark Brown


If you thought it was painful watching Alex Salmond impaled upon a pound sign-shaped hook during last Tuesday’s independence debate, it is as nothing compared with the crisis of conscience which besets veteran trade union leader Bob Cunningham (played by David Hayman) in Chris Dolan’s independence-related monologue The Pitiless Storm.

At the outset of the play we find Cunningham preparing a speech for an audience of old “comrades” from the Labour Party and the trade union movement. The gathering has two purposes.

Firstly, to celebrate the union leader being awarded an OBE, which he is due to receive at Buckingham Palace the following day. Secondly, for Cunningham to reconfirm his longstanding opposition to both Scottish independence and the “tartan Tories”, as he still calls the SNP.

There’s a problem, however. Try as he might, he just cannot stick to the script. Plagued by the ghosts of his staunchly left-wing father, late ex-wife and, even, his idealistic younger self, the seasoned campaigner finds that his granite certainties are turning to ashes in his hands.

The beauty of this smartly crafted hour of theatre is that Dolan knows that there is more than enough sterile rhetoric on both sides of the indy debate without it being replicated by artists. There’s politics and history aplenty here, of course, but there’s real drama too.

Hayman plays the conflict between pragmatic gradualist and radical socialist, egotist and altruist within Cunningham with an impressive sense of psychological and emotional meltdown. If you only see one monodrama or one show about Scotland’s referendum during this year’s Fringe, this play is a winner on both counts.

Which is not to rule out John McCann’s Spoiling, a smart satire set in the early days of an independent Scotland. We find ourselves in the decidedly dishevelled office of Fiona, the heavily pregnant Foreign Minister of Scotland (played by the ever excellent Gabriel Quigley), who is due to make a tame and cordial speech alongside her Westminster counterpart.

By the state of the room it’s obvious the Minister has been working through the night on an alternative version of her speech. Which is why her political advisor, Paul, has gone missing, only to be replaced by Mark (an inch perfect Richard Clements), a high-flying civil servant fresh to Holyrood from the Northern Ireland Assembly.

What follows is an often witty, sometimes sharp comedy about political principle versus the compromises of staying “on message”. As Westminster politics raises its ugly head, “perfidious Albion” style, McCann’s play suggests that Holyrood has already learned the rules of parliamentary cretinism.

There are some lovely lines, from Mark’s postmodern lingo (a politically undesirable outcome is “dispositive”) to Fiona’s description of her opposite number from the rump British state as “the Eton mess”. However, one can’t help but wish that the play, which slips occasionally from satire into polemic, had more teeth.

Director Orla O’Loughlin’s production is precise and nicely paced, but she can do little about the fact that the Traverse’s contribution to referendum theatre is more Yes Minister than The Thick Of It.

If McCann’s play is timely, so too is another Traverse offering, Small War, by Flemish theatre maker Valentijn Dhaenens. Located, primarily, in the First World War, it speaks powerfully to the centenary of that cataclysmic conflict.

Dhaenens plays, live on stage, a female battlefield nurse struggling to maintain her humanism in the midst of the never-ending torrent of destroyed and broken bodies. However, he also plays, in brilliantly presented holograms, the ghosts of injured soldiers, rising from their beds.

The visual effects and juxtapositions of this highly original piece are compelling. The texts from which the script is constructed – ranging from a brutally persuasive speech by Attila the Hun in 451AD, through testimonies from the First and Second World Wars, to 21st-century conflicts – are presented with a frightening and deceptive sense of normality.

The piece has an extraordinary, gentle rhythm, a musicality by which, like a great piano sonata, it insinuates itself into one’s senses. One leaves the production deeply affected by its contemplations of war and human nature, without quite knowing why.

If subtlety is Dhaenens’s strong suit, it is, if one believes the play’s detractors, in short supply in Race, American playwright David Mamet’s drama about a racially charged rape case. The play caused huge controversy when it premiered in New York in 2009, which makes its staging by The Playhouse Company of Durban, South Africa a fascinating prospect.

I should say, first up, that, despite its twists, I find Mamet’s play almost vulgar in its two chief premises about the subject of race in the contemporary United States. The first, that no white person can say anything about race and racism to any African American, is dubious, to say the least.

The second, and even more contentious, idea, that a rich, white man accused of raping a working-class black woman cannot expect a fair trial, seems to me to be an extremely dangerous fallacy.

That said, this simply presented, nicely acted production can be praised for giving us the play straight. However, that is also its problem.

Performed in American accents, and indistinguishable from an American or, for that matter, English staging, it seems bound to disappoint those who hoped it might do for Mamet’s play what Yael Farber’s outstanding Mies Julie, a sharply South African adaptation, did for Strindberg two years ago.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 10, 2014

© Mark Brown


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