Sea Wall / Midsummer / East 10th Street / Little Gem / Stefan Golaszewski Is A Widower / Barflies

Traverse Theatre and offshoots, Edinburgh
August, 2009
**** / **** / *** / *** / ** / ***

One of the mixed blessings of theatregoing with the intensity common to the Edinburgh Festivals is that productions slip immediately into context beside one another. The Traverse Theatre, for instance, tends to strip its press performances across entire days, with the result that last Friday I saw, and could not help comparing, a number of monologue-based pieces dealing with various kinds of bereavement.

The two most closely comparable are the Bush Theatre’s production of Sea Wall by Simon Stephens (first seen in London last autumn) and Stefan Golaszeskwi Is A Widower, by the member of the Cowards comedy group who scored a hit here last year with …Speaks About A Woman He Once Loved. I am afraid Golaszewski’s play suffers by the comparison, as I suspect it also does by its presence in this particular venue. His 2008 piece was seen at the Pleasance in a more comedic milieu; at the Traverse, folk seemed less ready to laugh at apparent gag lines. Golaszewski, however, is trying to square a circle by being both similar to and different from that earlier work. (The two will be twinned in London later this year.) His first-person protagonist, set in the future of 2056, is deliberately written as increasingly unsympathetic and perhaps deluded. However, where the experiences of young love recounted in …Speaks About… were touchingly universal, those in …Is A Widower seem more baldly unoriginal, and laced moreover with laboured “future” references.

Sea Wall lasts only half as long at 30 minutes, but paradoxically contains more by leaving more out. Stephens’ protagonist speaks of his wife, daughter and father-in-law, of swimming and diving in the Mediterranean (hence the title, which refers to the Med’s equivalent of the underwater continental shelf), and circles around the issues of God and bereavement but never addresses either one directly for more than a second or two. Andrew Scott’s performance is brilliant, except that brilliance suggests high visibility and Scott underplays consistently, sometimes even mumbling away entire phrases in what seems an entirely natural delivery, at once affable yet slightly evasive. The first performance I saw in Edinburgh this year, it instantly provided the standard against which all others here must be judged.

I have long been an admirer of Stephens’ writing, and even more so of David Greig’s. The latter’s Midsummer is in some ways a thirtysomething counterpart to his young-adult tale Yellow Moon, seen in the same space a couple of Fringes ago. Lawyer Helena and petty criminal Bob meet one night in a wine bar and eventually, somewhat against their better judgement, embark on a weekend-long folie à deux of sex, alcohol and frittering away someone else’s dodgy money. Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon punctuate their interaction with wry, self-deprecating commentaries, and also with renditions of Gordon McIntyre’s simple yet affecting songs. As they find themselves falling in love with each other, so do we with Greig’s own production.

Stefan Golaszewski invents a first-person protagonist, but it seems that with Edgar Oliver what we see is the real McCoy: a self-conscious, eccentric writer and actor giving an account of the bizarre rooming-house in which he has lived for more than 30 years. With its alcoholic mulatto postman, midget cabalist and the like, it sounds as if Oliver has been inhabiting an Edward Gorey poem, full of horrors and disquietudes somewhat askew from the conventional. His writing is accomplished, but the impact of the piece as performed depends on the extent to which one is engaged by his Gothically fey persona. I’m afraid I could only buy into it so far and no further, as it seemed to me too affected, not least in its strange vowel mutations: at one point he speaks of sitting in the perk, almost entirely in the dirk except for the light of the stirs.

Another orthoepical oddity, the occasionally over-articulated “r” of the northside Dublin accent, mutates the word “general” so that at one point, one of the characters in Little Gem seems to speak of having “a genital tidy”, which turns out to be quite appropriate. Elaine Murphy’s play at first made my heart sink, blending as it does two clichés: the Irish monologic storytelling-style play and the one consisting of three generations of women from the same family. However, it is seldom that we hear Irish womanhood across the generations meditate so candidly on sexual matters: granddaughter Amber’s pregnancy might be far more unexpected to her than to us, but in contrast her gran Fay’s account of buying a “rampant rabbit” vibrator to see her through her husband’s terminal illness is disarming in several different ways. Murphy strives too much for a shapely ending, but Paul Meade’s production for Dublin’s Gúna Nua company is simple and direct.

The Traverse is once again producing a few shows beyond its Cambridge Street premises, one of which is in the Barony bar in Edinburgh’s New Town. It’s not the most salubrious location, but for that very reason is a fitting setting for the Charles Bukowski-inspired Barflies. Ben Harrison stages his adaptation as a simple two-hander in which Keith Fleming, as author-surrogate literary drunk Henry Chinaski, goes through relationships with several women (all played by Gail Watson) ranging from the doomed-romantic to the violent to the surreal. As the two principal performers fight, fuck and philosophise across, around and on top of the Barony’s bar counter, David Paul Jones augments the proceedings with a clutch of judiciously chosen musical numbers sung in his haunting basso-Antony-Hegarty voice. In truth, this seems a comparatively modest project by the standards of the Grid Iron company, who specialise in site-specific work (having performed tailor-made pieces everywhere from a children’s playground to Edinburgh International Airport’s departures concourse). I must also admit that I have never been entirely persuaded of Bukowski’s genius (he liked drinking and wrote well about liking it – so what?) Nevertheless, the honesty of his authorial voice combined with Harrison’s dramaturgy provides an hour and a quarter of more than serviceable drama. Oh, and the ticket entitles you to a free drink.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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