Jennifer Black

Arctic Oil

11/10/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ella (Neshla Kaplan) is a committed environmental activist, currently stranded on the remote Scottish island where she grew up. She and her infant son have been living near her widowed mother, Margret (Jennifer Black) and she has been going stir crazy. So, under the pretext of visiting London to attend a friend’s wedding, Ella has covertly planned to head off to an Arctic oil rig to join a team of activists in a potentially dangerous protest, leaving Margret to babysit her grandson. But Ella has underestimated Margaret, who is wise to her daughter’s plan and determined to keep her out of harm’s way. With this in mind, she lures Ella into the bathroom of the family home, then promptly locks the door and swallows the key.

What follows is a tightly constructed two-hander as mother and daughter argue, debate the future of the planet and uncover old grievances. Margret is quick to point out that the island on which they live is dependent on oil company investment. The industry provided work for her late husband, when he was in dire financial straits; and besides, instead of trying to change hearts and minds, shouldn’t Ella be more concerned with being a responsible mother to her son?

For Ella, it’s all about the future of that son and the doomed planet on which he’ll be expected to exist. It’s about the destruction of one of the world’s last true wildernesses, the inexorable rise of global warming  – and the fact that if nobody takes a stand on this issue now, then its all headed for hell in a hand basket.

There are two strong performances here and, apart from a  few nitpicks – would news of what’s happened to the oil rig protesters reach the mainstream media quite as promptly as it does, for example – Clare Duffy delivers a prescient tale that raises plenty of important questions. Gareth Nichols directs with a sure hand and I love the ingenious set, designed by Nichols and Kevin McCallum, which is built to withstand the onslaught of Ella’s rigorous attempts to kick her way through that locked door.

Perhaps, ultimately, this is all questions and precious few answers, but it’s nonetheless a thoughtful piece, which arrives at a time when the world has been publicly warned of the dire consequences of global warming. But, at its heart, this is far more about the mother-daughter relationship, and the love that underpins all their differences.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Safe Place

21/08/17

Rose Street Theatre, Edinburgh

Safe Place is the drama I’ve been waiting for: a sensitive, insightful examination of the uneasy relationship between trans-activism and feminism. It asks (and answers) many questions, and all within the framework of a genuinely good play with convincing, well-rounded characters. It’s nuanced and intelligent, and it’s entertaining too.

Martine (Jennifer Black) is a Germaine Greer-type figure: a well-respected academic with unimpeachable feminist credentials. But she’s out of touch when it comes to transgender issues, dismissive of the idea that one can ‘choose’ to become a woman. She is forced to confront her beliefs head-on when Rowan (Shane Convery) arrives at her door in the early hours of the morning, starving, homeless and begging for help. Because trans-woman Rowan, despite her desperate need for food and shelter, is uncompromising in her demand that she should be accepted for who she is: not as a lesser, ‘unreal’ kind of woman, but as an equal – different but every bit as valid.

If the conceit is a little contrived – and it is – then it doesn’t really matter. Because the conversation between the two women opens up an important debate. We need to listen to each other, young and old and in-between, to reach a mutual understanding. I leave this play better informed, having witnessed the interrogation of some of my own unwitting prejudices. I’m glad that Martine is given the chance to express her doubts, and that she’s treated with respect; she might be wrong, but she deserves to be part of the conversation.

But the starring role here, quite rightly, is Shane Convery’s: Rowan is a fascinating character, played with charm and subtlety by the young actor. She’s delicate but strong, wounded but still fighting. And she wins the day – because she’s clearly right. It’s a stunning performance.

This isn’t quite a two-hander: there’s a bit of light relief in the form of Martine’s agent, Nina (Shonagh Price), who helps illuminate Martine’s position, and slyly undermine it too.

This play, beautifully written by Clara Glynn, is an important piece of theatre. I’d love to see it taken into schools – not so much for students as for teachers, although I’m sure teenagers would gain from it too. But it’s my generation that most needs to learn this stuff and here is a ‘safe place’ for us to do just that. The only thing that could make it better would be a companion piece about trans-men.

5 stars

Susan Singfield