Edinburgh Festival Reviews: Lanark, Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour, Light Boxes, Iphigenia In Splott, The Garden (Sunday Herald)

FESTIVAL & FRINGE THEATRE

Lanark
ROYAL LYCEUM
Until tomorrow;
transferring to Citizens Theatre, Glasgow,
September 3-19

A

Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour
TRAVERSE
Run ends today;
then touring until October 24

A

Light Boxes
SUMMERHALL
Run ends today

A

Iphigenia In Splott
PLEASANCE DOME
Run ends today

A

The Garden
TRAVERSE
Run ends today

A

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Sandy Grierson and Jessica Hardwick in Lanark. Photo credit: Eoin Carey
Sandy Grierson and Jessica Hardwick in Lanark. Photo credit: Eoin Carey

It is a dreadful irony that Alasdair Gray had the accident which keeps him critically ill in hospital so soon before the Edinburgh International Festival’s staging of his great novel Lanark. The event was intended to celebrate his becoming an Octogenarian in December of last year.

This is not the first time this sprawling, complex, seemingly unstageable prose fiction has been adapted for the theatre. Alistair Cording wrote a stage version for a 1995 production by TAG theatre company.

Twenty years on, the talented and prolific dramatist David Greig has taken on the challenge of Gray’s modernist masterpiece. Directed for Glasgow’s Citizens theatre company by Graham Eatough (Greig’s old collaborator at experimental theatre group Suspect Culture), it is a play of which, I’m sure, the novel’s author would be proud.

Greig has reduced the four books of Lanark to three acts; numbered two, one and three, echoing the careful disorder of the novel. The adaptation, which plays out over four hours, is clever, bold, unevenly balanced and deeply respectful of Gray’s opus.

In the brilliant opening act, we are introduced to the lurid, dying, dystopian Glasgow that is Unthank. Here we meet our eponymous, uncertain hero (who, his memory having blanked, calls himself Lanark, as it is the destination on the rail ticket he finds in his pocket).

The casting of the extraordinary Sandy Grierson in the title role is a masterstroke. The character of Lanark is, perhaps, the closest Scottish literature has come to its own Woyzeck, Buchner’s great Everyman, and Grierson has an empathetic quality that draws us inexorably towards him.

The tabula rasa that is the hero’s mind is a device that proves as well-suited to theatre as to the novel. Excellent set, video and lighting design combine with fine sound and music to evoke a dark, diseased Unthank that is simultaneously Orwellian, surreal and, crucially, almost as weird to Lanark as it is to us.

The denizens of the city (and, later, of the sinister Institute and, indeed, of Lanark’s suddenly over-populated mind) are played by a universally fabulous supporting cast. Paul Thomas Hickey (magnetic as the oily-but-charismatic Sludden) and Jessica Hardwick (characteristically compelling as the brave-yet-vulnerable Rima) are particularly impressive. Veteran actor/director Gerry Mulgrew is wonderfully comic as a pernicious military officer and, latterly, as Gray himself.

The play loses a little pace in the insufficiently theatrical second act, in which Lanark learns of his early life (a fictionalised autobiography of Gray’s own childhood). Moreover, some unnerving elements of the novel, such as the suffering of people who have living mouths all over their bodies or those afflicted with the reptilian illness dragonhide, are treated too flippantly.

Nevertheless, viewed over the piece, Greig and Eatough have succeeded in finding a theatrical expression for much of the personal, literary, philosophical and political tumult that is Gray’s novel. You can’t ask more than that of such a preposterously ambitious project.

Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour, adapted for the stage from Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos by Lee Hall of Billy Elliot fame, is more modest in scale. Written for the National Theatre of Scotland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Live Theatre, and directed by Vicky Featherstone (founding director of the NTS, now artistic director of the Royal Court theatre in London), its world premiere at the Traverse has been eagerly awaited.

By turns raucous, funny, disturbing and deeply sad, the play follows the travails of the choristers of a Roman Catholic girls’ school from The Port (Oban) as they travel to The Capital (Edinburgh) for a singing competition. A superb, six-strong, all-female cast relate the  experiences of the small town girls through narration, dialogue and (both popular and classical) song.

The production gives energetic, sympathetic expression to the girls’ desire to unleash themselves in a hedonistic carnival of booze and sex. As bold girl Kylah (a searing performance from Frances Mayli McCann) and her pals find themselves surrounded by members of the city’s scumbag fraternity, the underlying anguish of their lives rises to the surface.

The relationship between working-class Fionnula and doctors’ daughter Kay (affecting performances from Dawn Sievewright and Karen Fishwick, respectively) adds revelatory depth to the piece. If the young actors deliver on the story, they are equally impressive in the often joyful song and dance which distinguishes the show from the bleak social realist drama this narrative could easily have become.

However, the piece does have a notable structural weakness. It swings back-and-forth between comedy and pathos with the predictability of a pendulum.

The classical song makes narrative sense, in relation to the competition that the girls screw up with hilarious, and depressing, inevitability. The pop music (which is tied into Kylah’s singing with a dodgy Argyllshire rock band) is sometimes sharply relevant, but is, at other times, used as a less-than-subtle means of relieving tension and jollying things along.

That said, Hall is a past master with this kind of bittersweet material, and if the play seems formulaic at times, that is, one suspects, entirely intentional. It may not reach the commercial heights of Billy Elliot, but, with its often extremely funny, rapid-fire, no-holds-barred dialogue and high octane performances, Our Ladies looks set to become a popular hit.

Light Boxes, the latest offering from Edinburgh-based company Grid Iron is unlikely to make the same kind of box office as the NTS/Live Theatre show, but it is no less impressive for that. Liberally adapted from Shane Jones’s novel by its director Finn Den Hertog, the play takes us into a bleak Grimm Brothers-meet-Aldous Huxley fable in which the inhabitants of a little town (shown to us in the microcosm of one family of three) are living in permanent winter.

The townsfolk are being punished by a punitive, Ancient Greek-style god (as much fickle human as diety) whose name is February. Their crime? That they loved flight.

Now everything that flies, from children’s balloons, to kites and airplanes, is forbidden, and people are disappearing in the ever encroaching ice. Perhaps all that stands between the town and destruction is the pro-flight, revolutionary movement The Solution.

In terms of its combination of fable and politics, and also its striking, otherworldly design (a wonderful, aromatic, semi-rural set created by Karen Tennent), both play and production are reminiscent of Stellar Quines’ memorable staging of Torben Betts’s drama The Unconquered back in 2007. Frustratingly, however, Tennent punctures her own visual aesthetic with the incongruous knitted masks for the beaked members of The Solution and, worse, the use of mass-manufactured, plastic bird and animal masks (a damagingly cheap solution to a problem that wasn’t there).

There are fine performances from Melody Grove, Keith Macpherson (worried parents Selah and Thaddeus) and Vicki Manderson (their daughter Bianca). Live rock music and atmospheric sound enhance the tension.

Den Hertog’s script follows an admirably clear and, crucially, theatrical line, until the concluding conflict of the tale. Then, sadly, it seems to lose its self-confidence and fall back on the prose fiction narration of Jones’s book.

Confidence is in abundant supply in Iphigenia In Splott, in which Sophie Melville gives, surely, one of the standout performances of this year’s Fringe. In this monodrama by Gary Owen, directed by Rachel O’Riordan (former artistic director of Perth Theatre) for Cardiff’s Sherman Cymru theatre, the Greek mythological figure Iphigenia is crashed into the unpromisingly named, working-class Cardiff suburb of Splott.

This Iphigenia (or Effie, for short) is immediately recognisable as a young, working-class woman who keeps her fears and vulnerabilities well hidden behind an armour-coated shell of heavy-drinking, apparent sexual confidence and expletive-laden street talk. No sooner has Melville painted this caricatured portrait, however, than we are plunged into a story that uncovers the heart-breaking precariousness of Effie’s life and the desperate limitations on her hopes and dreams.

She is the victim, yet again, of the misogynistic double standards applied to the behaviours of sexually active young women (“slut”, “skank” etc.) and men. Her life-altering experience begins with all-too-typical abandonment by a lover and ends with a catastrophe in Welsh healthcare which was authored by Cameron and Osborne in Westminster.

The political import of this is clear, both from Owen’s script and the raw, transfixing urgency of Melville’s acting, long before the play’s sudden collapse into an earnest, but much too polemical, conclusion.

There are politics of an even more despairing kind in the chamber operetta The Garden by Zinnie Harris (book and direction) and John Harris (music). A small audience is walked from the Traverse Theatre foyer to a tiny space belonging to the nearby Royal Lyceum, wherein we meet Jane (Pauline Knowles) and Mac (Alan McHugh) in their kitchen.

It soon transpires that they are living in an ecologically devastated future in which almost nothing lives or grows, and in which Mac is engaged, as a civil servant, in a project which purports (mendaciously) to be on the brink of a scientific and political solution. When Jane discovers a plant (an apple tree, perhaps) growing under the linoleum of the kitchen, she worries that her hallucinatory depression (a consequence of the environmental and social cataclysm) has returned.

Knowles and McHugh are both talented actors and equally accomplished singers. To have them performing such fine, intense, tragic material at such close quarters is a real treat.

Small-scale new opera is seen too rarely in Scotland. This piece – which is short (at a little over half-an-hour) and convincingly designed (by Camilla O’Neill), and in which the composer plays his own subtly effective music – is a powerful advert, both for the art form and for the show’s producer, Sound, Scotland’s new music festival.

For tour dates for Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour visit: http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 30, 2015

© Mark Brown

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