General opinion has it that Gagarin Way is the jewel in the Traverse Theatre's crown this Edinburgh season. Even without having seen everything else on offer at the venue, I am well prepared to believe it. Gregory Burke's first play, which transfers in September to the Cottesloe Theatre, fizzes with intelligence, insight and mordant wit, often bluntly expressed but always sharply observed.
From the moment the two young men apparently waiting to pull off a Dunfermline factory storeroom theft launch into a detailed yet deliciously acerbic discussion of Sartre and Genet, it is clear that this is no slab of it's-grim-up-north naturalism. When the heist is revealed to be in fact the kidnapping and murder of a multinational corporate manager as a Bakuninist revolutionary gesture, "the propaganda of the deed", the play settles into a complex four-way discussion of various perceptions of political philosophy, but is constantly leavened by biting one-liners.
Burke's programme note says that he wanted to write about the twentieth century, economics and men, and it turned into a comedy. Like all the best comedies, it provokes thought through and behind and beyond the laughter. The naïve politics graduate accidentally caught up in events, the exemplar of self-improvement who finds that there is no reward for his awareness, the bad-boy doubting revolutionary and the exec who turns out to hail from just a few miles down the road in Fife bat around views of socialist history (the play takes its name from a street in the west Fife town of Lumphinnans), the stranglehold of capitalism and how a man is to find a place for himself in a world where only the big structures count, but do it all with an expletive-strewn sardonicism that saves the piece from ever slumping into sterile stage-debate. The combination of dark and violent action and electric articulacy calls to mind the Traverse success of several seasons ago, Simon Donald's The Life Of Stuff.
John Tiffany's production ensures that every firework in the script goes off with the requisite bang. Michael Nardone is compelling as Eddie, the too-learned would-be agitator who finally realises the hollowness of his theories but remains true to the practice; Maurice Roëves as the besuited manager Frank – who naturally turns out to have a deeper perspective on matters than his captors – turns in a marvellous performance at every instant even through long periods of silent reaction. And at one stroke Gregory Burke has made a name for himself.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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