Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh,
Until May 13
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Charlie Sonata is one of those guys whose life didn’t quite move on. Like a needle getting stuck on a record, he watched his friends’ lives blossom, but he never found himself, in the words of David Byrne, “in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife”.
In fact, Charlie Sonata (Chick to his friends) is one of those Scottish alcoholics who drift around London providing TV scriptwriters from Islington with an ever-reliable stereotype. University educated, his articulacy drowned in booze, he is back in Scotland because Audrey (the teenage daughter of his divorced friends Gary and Kate) is lying, dangerously ill and comatose, in a hospital bed.
Set in this moment and at various points in Chick’s past, Douglas Maxwell’s new play emerges through a surrealistic haze. Like his 2005 piece If Destroyed True, the dialogue often has the sense of a poetic prose fiction; indeed, the playwright even goes so far as to introduce an uncertain (and, in truth, superfluous) narrator, who begins his expositions on Chick’s life by asking us: “Can this be right?”
Scrolling back through Chick’s past, Maxwell shows us the unlikely hero hiding in a London phone box as Mo (a screwed-up Cockney he thought was his girlfriend) incites her male companion to kill the Scotsman. Back in the present, Charlie finds himself in a hospital drama that is part Holby City, part Tchaikovsky’s ballet of Sleeping Beauty.
In the latter, Meredith, the mentally unsteady and decidedly unballetic sister of hospital consultant Mr Ingram, appears costumed as the wicked fairy Carabosse. Assigning parts from Sleeping Beauty to everyone concerned, she insists that Chick is destined to play the role of the life-restoring Prince to Audrey’s insentient Princess Aurora.
There is, in such scenes, a sense of the novels of Carlos Fuentes colliding with those of Irvine Welsh. Following on from 2015’s ambitious, but flawed, play Fever Dream: Southside, Maxwell is well and truly establishing his credentials as the latest exponent of a Caledonian Magical Realist theatre; a genre we have seen only rarely, in works such as Chris Hannan’s Shining Souls (1996) and David Greig’s stage adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s great novel Lanark (2015).
The play is directed by Matthew Lenton, founder of acclaimed modernist theatre-makers Vanishing Point. Frustratingly, however, Maxwell’s script is just a little too unruly, even for Lenton’s talents.
As we shift between the student bars of Stirling University in the 1980s and the metaphorical possibilities of Castleland, the soft play centre which employs Jackson (university chum of Chick and Gary, who is now in a relationship with Kate), the piece begins to sag. Although the drama has a tighter structure than the blancmange-like Fever Dream, it still lacks momentum; and, at more than two hours long, it does not benefit from the absence of an interval.
If the piece meanders at times, that is despite the best efforts of a truly outstanding cast. It is almost invidious to single out any performances, but Sandy Grierson inhabits Chick utterly in his disappointment, desperation and decency, while Meg Fraser is a tragicomic joy as Meredith (although just why her brother has a south-east of England accent, while she has the lovely brogue of the north-east of Scotland, is never explained).
The structural weaknesses of play and production are exasperating because Charlie Sonata demands to be a better drama than it is. Warm, witty, beautifully humane (albeit with an ultimate pathos that might be a tad sentimental for some tastes), it is maddeningly close to a return to form by the author of the still-resonating drama from the year 2000, Decky Does A Bronco.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 7, 2017
© Mark Brown