Voices In Her Ear
Seen at Oran Mor, Glasgow:
at Traverse, Edinburgh, April 25-29
Reviewed by Mark Brown
There is no question that the lunchtime theatre A Play, A Pie And A Pint, created by the late producer and theatre maker David MacLennan in 2004, is a good deed in a naughty world. Staging no fewer than 38 new plays each year, it is, by a distance, Scotland’s biggest producer of new work.
There is an admirable sense among P, P & P’s loyal Glasgow audience that it doesn’t much matter if any given play doesn’t quite pass muster, there’ll be another one along next week. There is also an inevitable eclecticism in the Oran Mor programmes, with some commendably weighty dramas peppering the lighter theatrical fare.
It is important, however, that A Play, A Pie And A Pint be seen as a welcome supplement to, rather than any kind of replacement for, Scottish theatre’s new writing infrastructure. That, surely, is what MacLennan intended.
Scotland’s currently underpowered new theatre writing cannot rely too heavily upon the 50-minute, lunchtime format. Very few dramatists have Samuel Beckett’s facility for writing profound, very short dramas, and even fewer can pen them specifically for audiences who are scoffing Scotch pies and downing glasses of lager or Merlot as they watch the play.
Don’t get me wrong, many a fine piece has emerged from the basement theatre of the Oran Mor, but, inevitably, the lunchtime season has its limitations and a certain sense of disposability. P, P & P is doing its particular job fabulously, but, as I wrote recently on these pages, we need others in the Scottish theatre sector to step up to the plate with a broader strategy for new work.
As if to prove this point, Voices In Her Ear, David Cosgrove’s new play for the Oran Mor (which transfers to the Traverse, Edinburgh next week) is a pretty unmemorable dark comedy. Imagine Brian Friel’s Faith Healer (in which the titular travelling curer-cum-charlatan negotiates the space between self-belief and shame) crossed with any of the light comedies popularised by Dorothy Paul.
A late-middle-aged Scottish “psychic”, by the inevitable name of Betty, is working a lucratively huge auditorium. Meanwhile her young assistant, Siobhan (who has a clipboard full of information garnered from punters’ letters to Betty), is feeding her lines via her earphone.
We’re treated to some of the more unpleasantly manipulative tricks of Betty’s dodgy trade before she heads backstage for a money making “private consultation” with Mark, a bereft young man who has a very special reason for wanting to meet the celebrity psychic. The ensuing confrontation is a mixture of what Donald Rumsfeld might call entirely predictable known knowns and only slightly less predictable known unknowns.
Betty is forced by the anguished Mark to defend her “profession”, deny her fraudulence and, like Friel’s faith healer, face up to the relationship between her commercial motivation and her supposed “gift”. Sadly, however, Cosgrove lacks entirely Friel’s moral and psychological subtlety, instead laying out the scene like the ethical equivalent of paint-by-numbers.
The ever-superb Alison Peebles (a hardened, cynical, yet vulnerable Betty) and Neshla Caplan (an impressively sharp-tongued and sarcastic Siobhan) put in better performances than the play deserves. Indeed, Cosgrove’s drama (despite its brevity) even contrives to run out of steam towards the end; a fact which doesn’t reflect well on the directing of River City actor Libby McArthur, who seems to have simply allowed the script to meander off in its own, weary direction.
There are, in fairness to Cosgrove, a few neat lines. However, his play never really gets beneath the surface of its chosen subject. Nor does it justify its less-than-surprising final twist.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on April 23, 2017
© Mark Brown