Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
It’s Christmas time, and the theatres are full of pantomimes and children’s tales. And that’s fine: I love a good panto, and some of my favourite stories are written (primarily) for a younger audience. But variety is the spice of life, they say, so the Traverse’s grown-up alternative is a very welcome thing.
Tracks of the Winter Bear comprises two short plays, companion pieces exploring the themes of love and loss. They’re separate yet linked, both intrinsically Edinburgian, set in the Abbeyhill district of the city. The same pub is referenced in both (The Regent Bar), and the two protagonists (Shula and Jackie) are both lonely, middle-aged women, trying – in their very different ways – to make some sense of their lives.
Act 1, by Stephen Greenhorn, is my favourite of the two. Using reverse chronology, it charts the tragic love affair of Shula (Deborah Arnott) and Avril (Karen Bartke). It’s a bleak but ultimately beautiful piece, with thoughtful, nuanced performances; Arnott, in particular, seems to embody the brittle hurt of grief.
Act 2 is an altogether stranger beast, telling the tale of a mangy polar bear and a washed-up Mother Christmas, both escapees from a tawdry Winter Wonderland theme park. The bear, cast adrift and hunted in an unknown land, speaks in the voices of those she has killed. Mother Christmas, or Jackie – played with bar-room swagger by the delightful Kathryn Howden – befriends her with promises of shortbread and love, and the two embark on an unlikely journey ‘home.’ It’s a fascinating premise and it’s very well-played (Caroline Deyga’s Bear is physically compelling), but it seems a little uncertain of its way, forsaking the early, earthy humour for a less engaging attempt at profundity.
Both pieces use what is essentially the same set, a narrow, snow-covered traverse stage (ironically, this is the first time we have seen this configuration at the, ahem, Traverse theatre). It’s curtained with a light gauze, which serves both to hint at snow in the air, and to create a misty, fairy-tale-like quality. The mirror-audience, visible throughout, magnifies my own reactions; it’s the perfect staging choice for this production, I think.
Overall, then, this is definitely one to watch. It’s interesting and original, and a welcome respite from all the feel-good fare.