The Grid Iron theatre company (not to be confused with either Pig Iron or Iron, both at the Traverse Theatre) made their name with vibrant, inventive site-specific work on the Fringe: the first company to open up what is now the Underbelly venue, they have also staged Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber in the vaults beneath the City Chambers, and their acclaimed production of Douglas Maxwell's Decky Does A Bronco toured children's playgrounds across the country.
In a sense, Variety (playing at the King's Theatre as part of the International Festival) is likewise a site-specific work; it's just that the specific site is a former variety theatre. Backdrops and lighting bars fly in and out, stage flats and braces are stacked against the bare back wall, performers and whole locations are trundled on and off the stage in huge travelling trunks. But we're relatively used to seeing the mechanics of theatre laid bare; the potential wonder of the staging doesn't distract us from the material itself.
Maxwell's play is far from bad, just unhelpfully exposed in the huge space of the King's. Harvey, the stage technician or "curtain monkey" who acts as a master of ceremonies by exhorting us to listen to "the laughter in the walls", is clearly a figure out of time. He transports us back to February 11, 1929, the final night of the King's Variety Theatre in an unspecific small Scottish town. Already the resident live company alternate on the bill with short silent films (several of which, as screened here, report news events years out of date).
Tensions past and present beset the company and management: adulteries real and suspected, the loss of a child, gay love, class resentment. A diffident functionary from a cinema firm arrives to take over the hall for the talkies and is mistaken for a Hollywood talent scout, but at the same time finds himself being drawn into the community of live performance. Everyone is searching for some kind of fixity, of definition for themselves, even as their world is on the brink of ending.
Ben Harrison directs the cast in usual Grid Iron style, blending storytelling and action, exuberance and poignancy. There are a clutch of fine performances, including Peter Kelly as the manager, raging as he succumbs to physical and mental disintegration, and David Ireland (who had taken the title role in Decky) as the man from the film company. On Tuesday night, the true "variety" atmosphere was even augmented by a pair of old biddies in the grand circle ostentatiously tutting at the blue material: in the backstage scenes comedian Jack Salt (John Kazek), in war reporter Michael Herr's phrase, uses "fuck" like a comma.
But getting the intended wonder to break across the proscenium arch and fill this 1300-seat theatre is a lot harder than the company are used to. Maxwell and Harrison work to enlist the audience in the community, but even in an old variety hall like the King's, the brute realities of the space prove intractable.
The right to fail is a vital notion in art, but in the framework of the world's pre-eminent arts festival it can seem, rightly or wrongly, a bit of a cheek. It is this attitude from which Variety suffers rather than any disastrous shortcomings on its own account.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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