A Slow Air / The Monster In The Hall / The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart /
What Remains / Wondrous Flitting / Man Of Valour / The Golden Dragon
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2011
**** / **** / **** / *** / *** / ** / ***

The first batch of Traverse openings on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe includes strong showings from Scotland’s principal playwriting Davids, albeit in each case transferring from earlier exposure elsewhere. David Harrower’s A Slow Air, first seen at the Tron in Glasgow in May, is a powerful and sensitive pair of intercut monologues by a now middle-aged brother and sister who have not spoken for 14 years. Little by little through their narratives we see not just their individual and shared histories but also the contemporary Scotland in which each lives, from the snobbiest parts of Edinburgh through to the Glasgow Airport attempted-bombers. Harrower directs real-life siblings Kathryn and Lewis Howden, each an accomplished performer in their own right.

David Greig has a brace of plays on show. The Monster In The Hall had earlier been toured by the TAG theatre company; it is sometimes hard to believe it was written for a teenage audience, although the protagonist is a 16-year-old schoolgirl, the wonderfully named Duck Macatarsaney. Duck cares for her dad, an ageing biker with MS, and on one fateful day has to contend with his sudden (though temporary) blindness and visits from the social services lady (expected), Duck’s secret unrequited classmate love (unexpected, not least because he seems gay) and dad Duke’s new soulmate from online role-playing games, a Norwegian death-metal chanteuse (inconceivable). Greig and the four-strong cast punctuate the action with 1960s-style girl-group numbers: the shadow of Leader of The Pack looms large… d’you get the picture? (Yes, we see…)

Greig’s The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart is even odder, being the story of a strait-laced female scholar of border ballads who, snowbound after a conference in the border town of Kelso, finds herself drawn into an archetypal balladic narrative involving the devil, love and severe intoxication. And a lot of rhyming, much of it self-conscious. Wils Wilson’s production for the National Theatre of Scotland first embarked on a tour of bar venues, and fetches up here in the function room of the Ghillie Dhu pub, with the audience sitting at tables whilst the cast of five cavort around, through and with us, singing and playing a clutch of ballads (plus a football chant and a Kylie number) as they go.

Other Traverse shows in “outreach” venues include a four-hour dance marathon piece in which audience participation is compulsory (which is why I gave it a miss) and What Remains, a promenade piece from the Scottish stalwarts of the form Grid Iron, through the Victorian spaces of the University of Edinburgh’s Medical School. It is remade into the Conservatoire of the Anatomy of Music, around which we are conducted to assemble a portrait of Gilbert K Prendergast, survivor of an unhappy childhood and now a nightmare of a piano teacher… truly, a nightmare. David Paul Jones’ music is as haunting as ever accompanying Ben Harrison’s words.

Other guest productions are less successful. Mark Thomson, who runs the Royal Lyceum Theatre just next door, has dropped by with his own play Wondrous Flitting, in which 24-year-old Sam wanders through a world trying to find significance; he fails, and so by and large do we. Man Of Valour, from Dublin’s Corn Exchange company, is a solo piece with Paul Reid performing Michael West’s minimal text and a lot of Berkoffian mime about a Dublin salaryman trudging through life with his father’s ashes. I am reminded that in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, the ruler of his fictional city hangs mimes upside down in a scorpion pit opposite a notice (also upside down) that reads “LEARN THE WORDS”. The most dramatically focused and unobtrusively intelligent is Ramin Gray’s ATC production of The Golden Dragon by Roland Schimmelpfennig, a series of scenes set in and around an Oriental restaurant: an unrolling tapestry of love and sex, life and death, and inevitably racism, presented in a deceptively low-key style.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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