Frances Poet

Fibres

29/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Fibres is Frances Poet’s ‘heath and safety’ play, an emotive response to her discovery that an acquaintance had lost both parents, six months apart, due to asbestos poisoning. Poet’s perception of asbestos as ‘something dangerous from the past’ was exposed as a fallacy; subsequently, she learned that more people die of asbestos-related illnesses each year than die in traffic accidents, that the NHS will be footing the bill for corporate greed/negligence until 2040. Mesothelioma takes between twenty and fifty years to develop, and even brief exposure is enough to kill.

Indeed, the brevity of exposure is a key feature of this play. Jack (Jonathan Watson) only works as a shipbuilder for a few days; he’s nervous about the asbestos dust he’s been warned about, so takes a pay cut and becomes an electrician. He thinks he’s dodged a bullet. His wife, Beanie (Maureen Carr), washes his overalls, a simple domestic act fraught with symbolism, as the fibres enter her lungs too.

As you might expect from Poet, there are many layers to be unravelled here; it’s not a simple polemic. There are parallels drawn between the asbestos fibres and the impact of traditional gender roles on a relationship: a slow, invisible poisoning.

Despite the subject matter, it’s not all doom and gloom. Jack and Beanie are a believable couple, muddling through as best they can. They’re facing the horror with fortitude and humour: Jack loves a bit of comedy, and has a catalogue of cringey jokes. Their daughter, Lucy (Suzanne Magowan), is struggling, but her breakdown is shown through a series of bleakly humorous, hide-your-eyes-behind-your-hands-while-your-toes-curl moments.

Breaches in health and safety protocol are given a human face, in the form of Lucy’s boss, Pete (Ali Craig). They work for a fibre optics company, and he’s up against it, trying to meet the demands of a contract while allowing his workers their requisite study days and sick leave. He’s fed up with the union rep’s ‘unreasonable’ demands, preventing him from getting the job done. We’re shown how it happens, how decent people can be pressured into repeating old mistakes. But Pete is given a chance to learn: his fondness for Lucy redeems him.

If this all sounds a bit po-faced, don’t be misled. This plays as a cleverly written domestic tragedy, with a window onto larger political issues. The actors switch between narration and performance; the set (by Jen McGinley) is a fluid, symbolic space, where the characters flit between life and death, the past and the present, dark humour and even darker anger. Jemima Levick’s assured direction ensures that there is no confusion: we always know where and when events are taking place, the pace allowing us time to digest what’s happening.

Fibres is a vital, heartbreaking play with an important message at its core.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Scotties

27/09/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Michael (Ryan Hunter) is fifteen years old, and he’s got homework to do. He’s been told to write an essay on local history, but he’s not sure where to start. The library’s shut because it’s a bank holiday, and his dad (Stephen McCole) is annoyed with him for being so disorganised. There’s tension in the air. Michael’s mum (Mairi Morrison) speaks to him in Gaelic, but Michael responds pointedly in English. He’s feeling rebellious, rejecting his roots. Only his gran seems to understand him.

But then he remembers the plaque at Kirkintilloch, commemorating the young Irish migrant workers – or ‘Scotties’ – who died in a bothy fire in 1937. His interest piqued, he opens up his laptop, and begins to research the conditions in which these people lived…

…and then he’s there, amongst them, working the potato fields with Molly (Faoileann Cunningham) and her compatriots from the island of Achill. He learns about their back-breaking work, about their customs; how they’re treated as outsiders and how they long for home.

And he also learns some uncomfortable truths about his own family.

Scotties – written and conceived by Muireann Kelly and Frances Poet – is a satisfying play, fascinating in its illumination of a moment in history, and uncompromising as it draws parallels with the way migrants are still treated today. Not so much bi-lingual as trilingual (Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and English), this is a clear demonstration of how language shapes us and informs us, links us to our past and our future: it is integral to our sense of self. The scripting is clever – I don’t know any Gaelic, but I can always understand what’s happening; I don’t feel I’m missing out (although, no doubt, there is a deeper resonance for those whose mother tongue this is). Theatre Gu Leòr’s mission to bring Gaelic theatre to a diverse audience is perfectly served by Scotties: it’s accessible and engaging and makes me want to know more.

The play’s structure is effective, like high quality YA fiction brought to life on the stage. Seeing everything from the young protagonist’s point of view means that we can learn with him, and his innocence is beguiling. The music (by Laoise Kelly) is vivid and  atmospheric, taking us from the giddy delights of an impromptu ceilidh down to mournful funereal pipes.

I like the set too: the gossamer-thin gauze between past and present showing how our history never really leaves us, is always there, informing what we do.

Scotties is in Edinburgh until Saturday 29th September – and it’s well worth seeking out. After that, it’s moving on to Achill Island (5th-6th October), where – no doubt – it will have an even more profound impact.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Gut

28/04/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Frances Poet’s lean and powerful psychological drama was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize for playwriting in 2015, and it’s easy to see what appealed to the judges. This tense  and affecting four-hander examines the entirely natural fears that can lurk in the minds of any parent – the worry that something bad might happen to their children – and it demonstrates how such fears, allowed to fester, can grow out of all proportion.

After a night away, young couple, Maddy (Kirsty Stewart) and Rory (Peter Collins), return home, where Peter’s mother, Morvern (Lorraine McIntosh), is babysitting their three year old son, Josh. Morvern tells them about an incident the previous day, when she took Josh to a cafe for his lunch. Josh needed to go to the toilet and, when a male customer offered to take him, Morvern was grateful for his help. Nothing sinister appears to have happened, but Maddy and Rory are understandably perturbed. The man was a complete stranger – how could Morvern have been so trusting? Terse words are exchanged and apologies made.

Rory soon gets over the situation but, for Maddy, the event has a much deeper resonance,  driving a wedge between her and Morvern and firing up a powerful distrust of any men she subsequently comes into contact with: the father of one of Josh’s schoolmates; Rory’s colleague from work; a man who comes to the door delivering leaflets  – all played by a wonderfully sinister George Anton. As her paranoia intensifies, it soon becomes apparent that Maddy’s fears are leading her and her son to a very dark place indeed…

Simply and effectively staged, with strong naturalistic performances from all the actors and adept direction by Zinnie Harris, Gut exerts a powerful grip on the audience’s emotions. The almost bare set thrusts the play’s themes into stark focus, with the occasional scattering of large boxes of brightly coloured children’s toys across the stage, hinting at the increasing disintegration of the family unit. An eerily lit doorway at the rear of the stage occasionally allows distorted shadows to be glimpsed through an opaque screen and a sombre musical score adds to an all-pervading sense of unease. It’s demanding stuff, but an unexpected reveal in the play’s closing moments offers some respite and actually brings audible gasps of relief from the audience.

This is a challenging and intriguing piece of theatre that keeps me hooked to the very end. The Traverse has a reputation for bringing exciting new work to public attention and Gut deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney