Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh
August, 2004
*** / ****

Lynn Ferguson seems to be reaching a kind of take-off point. The actress and writer is by common consent the strongest and most affecting of the trio in her show Biographies In A Bag. Each day, two of the three women involved walk onstage with a carrier bag containing the basic props of a half-hour biographical piece. The performance I saw didn't include Donna Air on Fay Wray, but Rachel Ogilvy gave a solid performance as a housewife whose obsession with Doris Day served as a means of reclaiming herself from the ashes of a marriage that was doomed from the start.

However, it's Ferguson's own piece that really hits you. She speaks of her research for a biographical piece on Arthur Schopenhauer as a way into a description of post-natal depression, or non-depression, or existential angst, or an odd mix of utter devotion to her baby son and lassitude concerning anything else. In the end, she rejects Schopenhauer's pessimism altogether, whilst recognising that the thing about the grind of this world is that "it doesn't ever stop". It's a beautiful, wry, mature, life-affirming piece given a simple, unadorned performance by Ferguson.

Immediately preceding this show in the same room is another biography, Rosebud: The Lives Of Orson Welles. Christian McKay summons up an uncanny likeness to the younger Welles: daft as it sounds, he moves his eyebrows in exactly the same way. Mark Jenkins' play has a touch about if of "When the fact becomes legend, print the legend". Some stories are slightly exaggerated, but all the favourites are there, from the saga of Citizen Kane and William Randolph Hearst (at the show's midpoint) to the Magnificent Ambersons farrago and later indignities such as Welles being misdirected when voicing-over a bunch of Bird's Eye commercials (the tape of which has become a bootleg classic).

When Jenkins can't find the time to include an anecdote in full, he'll drop in a passing reference to let the aficionados know he knows about it. Strangely, hardly any mention is made of Welles' Chimes At Midnight, in a show whose unifying theme is its protagonist's slow transformation from the Prince Hal of American cinema into its Falstaff. But even an impersonation of that smirking cherub can still work some kind of magic.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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