Reviews: The Mothef**ker With The Hat Tron Theatre, Glasgow & Rishta Oran Mor, Glasgow



The Mothef**ker With The Hat

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Until March 17



Oran Mor, Glasgow

Run ended


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Francois Pandolfo (Jackie) and Renee Williams (Victoria) in The Motherf**ker With The Hat. Photo: John Johnston  

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2011 play The Motherf**ker With The Hat is typical of a genre that is prominent in contemporary theatre in the US and the UK. The kind of drama I always think of as “soap opera with a twist”, it combines curse-inflected street language with drugs, booze, violence and intense personal crises. In fact, whether the authors of such plays know it or not, their work seems closer to the melodramatic, Brazilian telenovela than it is to American or British naturalism.

Played out on designer Kenny Miller’s three-level set (representing a trio of very distinct domestic abodes) the piece centres on recently released convicted drug dealer Jackie as he attempts to get a job and a reputation as a model of rehabilitation. That’s no easy task when his girlfriend Veronica is a coke addict and his parole counsellor (and seeming best friend) Ralph D (famously played by comedian and actor Chris Rock when the drama premiered on Broadway) is a cynical shyster.

It seems that all that stands between Jackie and self-destruction is the advice of his Puerto Rican cousin Julio (a somewhat camp, caricatured health and fitness fanatic with a  Jean-Claude Van Damme fixation). Matters are further complicated for Jackie by the attentions of Ralph D’s neglected wife Victoria.

Needless to say, this entire, messed-up matrix of human relations appears like a dangerously teetering house of cards. It only takes the careless abandonment of a piece of headgear, followed by Jackie’s hot-headed presumption that his titular, hat-wearing neighbour is having an affair with Veronica, to set off a chain of events that will bring the entire, unstable structure down on everyone’s heads.

There is something dishearteningly predictable about both the subject matter and the structure of Guirgis’s play. That said, there are aspects in the writing and in the acting of this production, directed by Andy Arnold for the Tron and the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, that lifts it above most stagings of such plays.

In the midst of a generally impressive cast, Alexandria Riley plays Veronica with a motormouthed bravado that functions as a thin veneer for her desperate vulnerability and lack of direction. Kyle Lima’s Julio is the production’s comic safety valve, and he plays his cartoonish-but-unique character with the necessary combination of absurdity and self-assertiveness.

In the midst of the chaos and occasional comedy, beneath the garish social realism, the play has a surprising, emotive undertow belied by its attention-seeking title. On a more sober, less commercially-inclined day, Guirgis might have entitled his play simply Loneliness, so agonisingly unreliable are the relations between all of his characters.

One senses the drama’s debt to TV and cinematic realism, which distinguishes it from the more intrinsically theatrical stage works of American writers such as David Mamet and John Patrick Shanley (in whose company director Arnold’s programme notes flatteringly places Guirgis). Written with an undeniable, stylish fluidity, the play is a strong example of an inevitably limited genre.

From a slice of American life to a work of Scots-Asian comic-realism at the Oran Mor, home to both the ever-popular lunchtime theatre A Play, A Pie And A Pint and the worst seating of any theatre venue in Scotland (when will they replace the horribly shoogly chairs?). The playwriting debut of Taqi Nazeer, better known as an actor (and graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), Rishta is a light-hearted, yet heartfelt, consideration of arranged marriage within the Scots-Asian Muslim community.

In many ways the piece feels like an introduction to the tradition for people from outside of the community. It also seems to function as an in-joke for those in the younger generation of Scots-Asian Muslims who are, to varying degrees, sceptical about the social conventions of their parents and grandparents.

The play is the story of Zahra (Mandy Bhari) and Niyal (played valiantly, script in hand, on Wednesday by Atta Yaqub, replacing Nazeer, who had, sadly, suffered a family bereavement). Brought together in a “rishta” (proposed marriage) arranged by their parents, their reticence, as Zahra’s gay friend Bally (played by Paul Chaal) knows, is down to more than more than just doubts about tradition.

The ensuing drama is, in many ways, a promising debut from Nazeer. His strongest suit is comedy. The play is sprinkled with nicely written jokes, be it the stock phrases used by the “rishta aunties” who set themselves up as the community’s matchmakers or Niyal’s naming a duck in the local park “Kashmir”, because two other ducks fight over her.

There is, however, a sense that the writer has tried to fit too much into a 50-minute piece. Any one of its numerous issues (from arranged marriage, to mixed-race relationships, interfaith love affairs and homosexuality within Scots-Muslim communities) could make a full-length play of its own, let alone a lunchtime mini-drama.

Almost inevitably, given its being so heavily loaded with weighty subjects, this short play seems a tad schematic at times. Similarly, the non-comic dialogue often feels a bit laboured.

The piece was written as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Breakthrough Writers scheme. One wonders how much mentoring Nazeer was offered as part of that project.

The next step for the young writer, surely, is to allow his talent for comedy to breathe in a less issue-laden work of theatre.

The current season of A Play, A Pie And A Pint runs until June 2. For full details, visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 11, 2018

© Mark Brown


Review: Deathtrap, Dundee Rep




Dundee Rep

Until March 10


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Emily Winter and Lewis Howden in Deathtrap. Photo: Dundee Rep

In days gone by Dundee Rep was considered the more serious-minded of the two repertory theatres on the banks of the River Tay. Perth Theatre, by comparison, had a more middlebrow bent, with a greater emphasis on putting “bums on seats” than encouraging its audience to sample the delights of the more challenging works in the theatrical canon.

Now, however, there are signs that the situation might be being reversed. Perth Theatre’s artistic director Lu Kemp has begun her 2018 programme in the impressively redeveloped playhouse with a superb production of Scottish dramatist David Harrower’s modern classic Knives In Hens; and she will follow that success with a staging of Shakespeare’s powerful and complex Richard III.

By contrast, Dundee Rep brings us Deathtrap, the 1978 comedy-thriller by American writer Ira Levin (author of the famous Nazi hunter novel The Boys From Brazil). A tremendous Broadway success in its day, Levin’s bold pastiche (in which successful stage thriller writer Sidney Bruhl becomes involved in a preposterous, and murderous, plot of his own) is a curious choice for the Rep in 2018.

Unlike Edward Albee’s evergreen 1962 American comedy Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (directed brilliantly for the Rep by James Brining in 2009), Levin’s drama looks tired and timeworn. The deliberately ludicrous, often obvious, storyline (in which there are more twists than a 1950s dancehall) hinges on the monetary motives of the indebted Bruhl. Likewise, Deathtrap shows all the signs of having been written to a commercially-driven model.

“Make ‘Em Laugh” goes the Broadway song, and Levin seeks to do that by stretching the conventions of the stage thriller to the nth degree. Bruhl (the ever-excellent Lewis Howden) and his wife Myra (Emily Winter) seem to be hatching a plot involving Clifford Anderson (Tom England), a former student of Bruhl’s who appears to have written a surefire hit show.

However, like a Russian doll, this plot contains a plot, within which lies another plot. No-one could get to the bottom of such a ridiculously convoluted series of events, except, perhaps, Helga ten Dorp, the caricatured eccentric foreigner (played, with what seems close to embarrassment, by fine actor Irene Macdougall) who claims to be gifted with extrasensory perception.

Director Johnny McKnight’s production is, ironically, given the play’s homicidal tendencies, quite bloodless. Its best joke is an unintended one.

Bruhl’s lawyer Porter Milgrim (Ewan Donald on deliciously spivvish form) comments on how much he “loves” the room in which the author works. This is laughable, as designer Kenny Miller has decorated the Bruhl household in an ugly combination of monochrome and red which has all the homeliness of a melting iceberg.

There was, on opening night, further inadvertent humour when the loud blast of music to accompany a character’s sudden, unexpected entry occurred seconds before he actually arrived.

An uncertain, unconvincing and, frankly, boring production of a laboured 1970s crowd-pleaser, this Deathtrap has more signposts than the M9. Not so much a whodunnit as a why do it?

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 4, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Velvet Evening Séance, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen & The Belle’s Stratagem, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Velvet Evening Séance,

Seen at The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen,

touring until March 4


The Belle’s Stratagem,

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

until March 10


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Velvet Evening
Velvet Evening Séance. Photo: Richard Frew Photography

As Scotland’s third city, Aberdeen has long punched below its weight where theatre is concerned. In particular, the Granite City has no producing house (such as Dundee Rep, for example) that stages its own work on a regular basis.

In this context new company Freshly Squeezed Productions (FSP), producers of Suzie Miller’s Velvet Evening Séance, is a good deed in a naughty world. Established by Aberdeen Performing Arts, with support from Creative Scotland’s Producers’ Project, FSP’s impressive offering is, one hopes, a sign of things to come.

Directed by Ross MacKay and performed by Scott Gilmour, this monodrama taps neatly into, not one, but two inherently theatrical social phenomena (namely legal trials and séances). Set in London in 1901, the piece takes place in a courtroom, where James MacGregor, a young Scot who claims to be a spiritualist, is fighting for his life.

Accused of the fatal poisoning of his older brother, MacGregor seeks to persuade the jury of 12 men (in whose stead we, the audience, sit) of his innocence by means of autobiography and, ultimately, a séance. The play asks more of its performer than many single-actor dramas, and Gilmour rises to the challenge, taking on the roles of numerous characters (all of whom are now dead) with a compelling dexterity.

The continuously played live music by composer/pianist Jim Harbourne and deceptively simple set by designer Becky Minto (which is more hangman’s scaffold than Victorian courtroom) generate an appropriately Gothic atmosphere. By the time MacGregor reaches the end of his defence, one is thoroughly absorbed in his tale. So much so, that one could almost forget that what he is presenting as an affirmation from beyond the grave is, in fact, an act of theatrical trickery.

Belle's Stratagem
Angela Hardie (centre) in The Belle’s Stratagem. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

The only trick in the Royal Lyceum’s fine production of The Belle’s Stratagem, Hannah Cowley’s uproarious sex war comedy of 1780, is adapter/director Tony Cownie’s clever and hilarious transposition of the action from London to Edinburgh. Named after George Farquhar’s early 18th-century comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem, Cowley’s play of manners sees male assumptions and presumptions overturned on the evening of a masked ball.

Young Letitia Hardy (Angela Hardie on wonderfully knowing form) is betrothed, by family arrangement, to the dashing man-about-town Doricourt (the appropriately sparkle-toothed Angus Miller). Finding him indifferent towards her, she resolves first to repulse him and then, by means of the masquerade, make him fall in love with her.

Meanwhile, the hapless Sir George Touchwood (the cartoonishly brilliant Grant O’Rourke) seeks to shelter the innocence of his young, country bride Lady Frances (the cleverly comic Helen MacKay) from the corruptions of city gentrification. Inevitably, this makes her all the more interesting to the rakish chauvinist Courtall (the wonderfully caddish Richard Conlon). Here, too, the cover of the masquerade offers a means of humorous justice.

From the outset, when we are warned that “Sassenachs” might not appreciate his version of the play, Cownie’s adaptation plays hilariously and smartly with its relocation to Scotland’s capital. A running gag about a break-in at the Treasury and the masquerade costume of the upstanding Deacon Brodie is a comic treat, while Letitia’s ultra-Scottish disguise enables a genuinely lovely rendition, both in voice and on the harp, of the Jacobite lament Will Ye No Come Back Again?

The production is perfectly paced, beautifully acted across the piece (from Nicola Roy’s wily prostitute Kitty to Steven McNicoll’s absurd Provost Hardy), with splendid, colourful costumes playing against suitably two-dimensional, monochrome sets (by designer Neil Murray). It is another comic triumph for Cownie at the Lyceum.

For tour dates for Velvet Evening Séance, visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 25, 2018

© Mark Brown

Review: Flight, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

A powerful Flight of fancy



Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow;

at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,

March 1-3


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Flight. Photo: James Glossop

The airport, as we saw in the National Theatre of Scotland/Grid Iron show Roam back in 2006, is not merely a functional location. Its comings and goings contain within them all manner of hopes and fears. Sometimes what goes on there is, literally, a matter of life and death.

Some eight years before Roam took its audiences around Edinburgh International Airport, the 1998 opera Flight, by Jonathan Dove (music) and April De Angelis (libretto), was addressing similar themes. Now, based upon the Investec Opera Holland Park production from 2015, the piece is now receiving its Scottish Opera premiere.

Rolling together the departure lounge and the arrivals hall, the opera brings together the kind of assortment of people you would be unlikely to find anywhere other than an airport.

There’s the middle-aged couple desperately trying to reignite the fire in their relationship. Their manufactured optimism contrasts humorously with the shenanigans of the airline steward and stewardess, for whom an airport elevator proves private enough for some sexual gymnastics.

Add to this the understandable crisis of confidence of the pregnant wife of a diplomat (is it motherhood or Minsk that is terrifying her?), the apprehension of a 52-year-old double divorcee waiting for her young lover and the plight of a refugee, who is stuck in the airport as if in limbo.

Played on Andrew Riley’s set, a precise evocation of its location which hosts Jack Henry James’s ambitious video work excellently, director Stephen Barlow’s production shifts effectively between comedy and tragedy. The impressively grand score, with its appropriately soaring crescendos and moments of spiky discordance, is matched by fine singing across the board (Jennifer France is especially affecting as the plaintive, almost ethereal Controller).

Ultimately, the figure of an implausibly humane immigration officer enables a powerful conclusion which puts the global refugee crisis centre stage.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 25, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Showtime From The Frontline, Traverse, Edinburgh & The Last Bordello, Tron, Glasgow (Sunday Herald)



Palestine and politics – without polemic


Showtime From The Frontline

Seen at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh;

at Tron Theatre, Glasgow,

March 21-24


The Last Bordello

Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow;

at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh,

February 21-24


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Showtime From the Frontline#2
Mark Thomas in Showtime From The Frontline. Photo: Steve Ullathorne

Scotland knows the Freedom Theatre of Jenin. The company, from the occupied Palestinian West Bank, which was established in 2006 by the extraordinary, self-defined Palestinian-Jewish director Juliano Mer Khamis (who was assassinated by an unknown killer in 2011), came to the Tron Theatre in Glasgow with their play The Siege back in 2015.

The piece dramatised the military stand-off, involving Palestinian fighters and the Israeli Amy, around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. Showtime From The Frontline, in which Freedom Theatre actors Faisal Abualheja and Alaa Shehada perform with famous English comedian Mark Thomas, is a very different proposition.

The show tells the true story of Thomas’s trip to Jenin to hold a comedy class and club night inside the Freedom Theatre. Abualheja and Shehada were among Thomas’s students.

The piece is the latest in an impressive series of shows by Thomas, including Extreme Rambling – Walking the Wall (2011) and The Red Shed (2016), in which, with unlikely success, the comic combines satire, stand-up comedy, storytelling and political activism.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the effectiveness of the south London comedian’s brand of political theatre. Thomas always was an inventive chap. He is, after all, the man who, back in the days when he had his own satirical show on Channel Four, turned up in Whitehall with a small tank with plastic ice cream cones attached, and told civil servants that he had an ice cream van he wanted to export to Iraq.

He never got that armed vehicle into the Middle East, but, with Showtime, he’s gone one better and got visas for two Palestinian actors so they can show UK audiences a side of Palestine that most will never have seen. Abualheja and Shehada play numerous roles, including the various students (female and male) and the socially conservative civic leaders who sit on the board of The Freedom Theatre (and who were deeply sceptical about the comedy club idea).

Assisted by video footage from Thomas’s trip to the Freedom Theatre (including film of the club night itself), the show drives a coach and horses through Western media stereotypes of Palestinians. How, for example, do preconceptions of Muslim Palestinian women fit with a young woman from Jenin who wears hijab, speaks a surprising amount of Korean and performs a hilarious skit about her infatuation with a blinged-up South Korean K-pop star?

As ever with Thomas’s shows, the hilarity lulls one into a false sense of security, making the sudden moments of poignancy all the more powerful. Footage of a young man, in the early days of the Freedom Theatre, being coached to tell the outside world that he wants to be the “Palestinian Romeo”, is charming and funny in equal measure.

The young actor talks movingly about how acting is his Intifada, how theatre is an important part of Palestinian cultural life and of resistance to the Occupation. There is, however, as so often in Palestine, a painful twist in this particular tale.

Plaudits are due to Thomas, Abualheja, Shehada and their director Joe Douglas. Showtime From The Frontline is another triumph in Thomas’s clever line in activist theatre. Yet again, the self-defined “libertarian anarchist” comedian delivers politics without the polemic.

The Last Bordello
The Last Bordello. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

If only The Last Bordello, which is written and directed by David Leddy for his company Fire Exit and the Tron, was as sensitive to nuance. Set, or so it seems, in a strange, soon-to-be-destroyed brothel in Israeli-occupied Gaza City, it offers a play-within-a-play, which itself contains miniature plays.

However, even this skeleton of a synopsis makes the piece sound more interesting, in structural terms, than it actually is. The play starts from a fascination with the life and work of Jean Genet, the bad boy of the Left Bank radical intellectuals of Paris in the late-20th century.

Genet was a prominent and engaged supporter of the Palestinian cause. Hence the play’s nominal setting in Gaza.

This, however, is marginal to Leddy’s play. The dramatist is much more interested in Genet’s troubled childhood and youth.

The son of a prostitute, Genet was sent out for adoption, but, despite his intellectual promise, an early career in petty crime landed him in the Mettray borstal for unruly boys. The young Frenchman’s homosexuality made his early life even more difficult.

Leddy transposes all of this into a dramatised gathering of prostitutes (including a rent boy, pointedly called Fassbinder, who dresses in archetypal French, gay sailor garb) and clients who are, for the most part, devotees of “the maestro” Genet.

Sadly, the drama itself has little of Genet. If it was by Pirandello it might be called Six Actors In Search Of A Play. Unlike the avant-garde work it seeks to replicate, Leddy’s piece has very little going on beneath the slightly risque surface.

Indeed, with its seeming excitement at its use of some naughty words and a bit of sex and violence, there is an adolescent quality to the piece. Which is disappointing, given the heights achieved by Sub Rosa (surely Leddy’s finest work) in 2009.

Given the growing indeterminacy of the play’s location, there is an unarguable logic in designer Becky Minto’s set, which is all ethereal white, with chairs in suspended animation (as if borrowed from an Ionesco drama). It’s just a pity that some fine actors (particularly Vari Sylvester, Helen McAlpine and Irene Allan) find themselves stuck in such a hollow piece of theatre.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 18, 2018

© Mark Brown

Review: Showtime From The Frontline, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)





Reviewed by Mark Brown

Showtime From the Frontline
Alaa Shehada, Faisal Abualheja and Mark Thomas. Photo: Steve Ullathorne

Have you  heard the one about the left-wing, English comedian who went to a refugee camp in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and set up a comedy club? Mark Thomas, Faisal Abualheja and Alaa Shehada have.

Showtime From The Frontline, the trio’s new UK touring production, is a spin-off from a comedy class and club night Thomas organised in the Freedom Theatre in the West Bank city of Jenin. Abualheja and Shehada (actors with the Freedom Theatre) were among Thomas’s students.

Anyone expecting the show to be a piece of megaphone theatre that simply denounces the Israeli Occupation for two hours hasn’t kept up with Thomas’s work over the last 12 years. From his anti-arms trade piece As Used on the Famous Nelson Mandela (2006) to Bravo Figaro (2012), in which he explored his late, conservative bricklayer father’s love of opera, the south London comic has received richly-deserved plaudits for his unique line in multimedia theatre shows which combine satirical comedy, storytelling and activism.

So it is with this piece. Due respect is paid to Juliano Mer Khamis, the remarkable Israeli Jewish-Palestinian founder of the Freedom Theatre, who was murdered outside his playhouse by an unknown assassin in 2011.

Thereafter, Thomas, Abualheja and Shehada tell the story of how they created a comedy club in Jenin. The Palestinian actors play the roles of the various students, female and male, as well as those of the disapproving worthies who make up the Freedom Theatre’s board of directors.

The results are very insightful and extremely funny. Some of the aspiring stand-ups avoid the subject of the Occupation. One hijab-wearing, young Muslim woman does a very humorous skit about her attraction to a Korean K-pop star.

Abualheja’s own routine does broach the Occupation, but from an hilarious angle. The district where he lives is at the entrance to the Jenin camp, he tells us.

Always the first to be affected by Israeli Army incursions and curfews, it is known as the “pregnancy district”. The curfews and electricity switch-offs force the people of his district to make their own “entertainment”, he explains. Israeli demographers are still mystified by the recent spike in the birth rate.

Combining performance with film of the club night in Jenin itself, this thought-provoking, engaging and extremely funny show breaks down common stereotypes and preconceptions about Palestinians one joke at a time.

Touring until April 21:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 15, 2018

©Mark Brown

Reviews: Knives in Hens, Perth Theatre & The Match Box, Byre Theatre, St Andrews



Knives In Hens

Perth Theatre

Until February 17


The Match Box

Seen at Byre Theatre,

St Andrews

Touring until February 24


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Knives in Hens
Jessica Hardwick (centre) and Rhys Rusbatch in Knives in Hens. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.

The 1990s was, arguably, the most fertile decade in the entire history of Scottish playwriting. It’s a bold claim, of course, but one supported by the emergence of such playwrights as David Greig, Zinnie Harris, Anthony Neilson and, as this production of the 1995 drama Knives In Hens reminds us, David Harrower.

Set in a pre-industrial society, Harrower’s play traces the relationship between a (significantly) unnamed young, female field-hand and Gilbert Horn, the local miller. Horn is despised and feared by the villagers in equal measure, on account of both his literacy and his legal right to a portion of their grain.

In a break with convention, the young woman’s ploughman husband (nicknamed Pony William by the villagers, due to his strong affection for his horses) sends her to mill the grain. Although she accosts Horn with customary hostility, the field labourer soon finds that the miller can help her unlock doors of experience that were previously firmly sealed.

The play that emerges is absolutely unique, sparsely poetic and deeply affecting. Its care with language (which is a central concern for the young woman) is reminiscent of the assiduous selecting (and removing) of words in the work of Harold Pinter.

It’s little wonder that the piece has been performed in at least 25 countries, being staged most recently at the Donmar Warehouse in London, in the summer and autumn of last year. It’s surprising, however, that Lu Kemp’s production for the recently redeveloped Perth Theatre should be just the fourth professional staging of the play in Scotland.

It’s almost seven years since postmodern Flemish director Lies Pauwels, in the words of one critic, “exploded [Harrower’s drama] to the four corners of the stage” for the National Theatre of Scotland. Pauwels’s production was a kind of stress test for the play, and, if it proved anything, it proved that the delicate balance of Knives In Hens deserves to be treated with considerably more care.

Kemp’s staging stands in stark contrast with Pauwels’s noisy, upstart version. Her production is, like the play itself, careful and confident as it reveals, with deceptive subtlety, an awakening in the young woman which is, by normal human standards, startlingly rapid.

Rhys Rusbatch plays Pony William with an intriguing sensuousness. Oblivious to the fatal flaw within his divided desires, he has an earthy physicality no less tangible than that of his “field-like” wife.

Michael Moreland gives an equally interesting performance as Horn. Whereas an American movie director might (God forbid) cast an actor like George Clooney in the role, Moreland gives us a more understated charisma, which is barbed and bruised by his life experience.

Fine though these performances are, however, there’s no doubting that the pinnacle of the play’s triangular relations is the young woman herself. Exceptional, young actor Jessica Hardwick could almost have been born for the role.

By turns uncertain, defiant, innocent and impulsive, she is ravenous for knowledge and experience. Simultaneously multifarious and consistent, Hardwick’s performance is like a human embodiment of the paradoxes in the poetry of William Blake (“You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough”).

The perfect poise of Kemp’s production is reflected gorgeously in Jamie Vartan’s impressive set. Semi-abstract and dominated by a huge aperture in the shape of a millstone, it is illuminated with dramatic nuance by lighting designer Simon Wilkinson.

Also boasting an intelligently attuned, atmospheric soundscape by Luke Sutherland, this is a staging worthy of one of the greatest plays in the Scottish theatrical canon.

From one of Scotland’s most acclaimed dramatists to a leading contemporary Irish playwright. Frank McGuinness is, perhaps, best known for his exceptional play Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme. However, as his one-woman drama The Match Box attests, he has a breadth of interest, both in subject matter and theatrical form, which is akin to that of his compatriot, the late Brian Friel.

Set in contemporary Liverpool, the piece is a first-person narrative delivered by Sal, the working class, Scouse daughter of Irish migrant parents. Performing on a set which collides simple domesticity with the front pages of tabloid newspapers, actor Janet Coulson unfolds the story of the brutal accident involving Sal’s 12-year-old daughter, Mary, and of the subsequent anguish of Sal and her family.

As she does so, one starts to wonder (as one sometimes does with monodramas) if McGuinness’s piece is actually a play. Engaging and powerful though the story is, not least in its contemplation of the morality of vengeance, it never really breaks from the sense that it is a prose fiction that has simply been dropped onto the stage.

Great monodramas grow organically from a theatrical impulse. We see this in the performative dynamism and artistic invention of theatremakers such as Tim Crouch (An Oak Tree, England) and Guy Masterson (Animal Farm, Shylock). However, too many single-actor shows are merely storytelling (a very valid art form in its own right) masquerading as theatre.

Fluid and absorbing though McGuinness’s tale is, there is not enough going on, visually or in Coulson’s occasionally unsteady performance, to overcome the feeling that one would have been as well reading the text at home.

Richard Baron directs the production with a steady hand for Hawick-based touring company Firebrand. However, one can’t help but wish he and the company had selected a piece which was written for the stage rather than the page.

For tour dates for The Match Box, visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 11, 2018

© Mark Brown