Stellar Quines

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

 

Bingo!

09/03/18

Assembly Hall, Mound Place, Edinburgh

A joint production by renowned theatre companies, Grid Iron and Stellar Quines, this comedy musical is an ambitious project. It’s not easy to stage a riotous musical with a small cast and no live band or orchestra. Given these limitations, Bingo! punches well above its weight, with gutsy, energetic songs and performances to match.

Set (where else?) in a bingo hall – staffed by the lovely Betty (Jane McCarry) and her sidekick, Donny (Darren Brownlie) – it tells the tale of world-weary travel agent, Daniella (Louise McCarthy). She’s fed up of living at home with her mother, Mary (Wendy Seager), and feels left-behind by her best friend, Ruth (Jo Freer), who’s not only been to university but has got herself a teaching job, a husband and a baby. Daniella is bitter and sad; she wants a bit of glamour and excitement in her life – and that’s what a bingo win can offer her. Oh yeah, and it just might provide an answer to a more pressing problem too, such as how she might replace the money she’s ‘borrowed’ from the holiday kitty she’s been entrusted with. Throw drunken old lady Joanna (Barbara Rafferty) and her Henry Hoover into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a perfect set-up. Sit back and see what happens next!

There’s a whole lot of lovely in this show. I’m especially impressed by Jo Freer, who has an easy naturalism; there is real depth to her portrayal of Ruth, which goes well beyond ‘convincing.’ But she’s in good company: these are all skilled practitioners, showing their acting chops. The choreography is good, and I really like the lighting and the set. There’s a bit of a problem with the sound towards the end of the first act, but it’s all back on track after the interval, so it’s not a big issue.

But there are some negatives, not least the fact that Bingo! sometimes seems unsure of what it is. The dark comedy juxtaposed with tender relationships works well; the social commentary is less convincing (Daniella bemoaning how little money she earns doesn’t make me feel particularly sympathetic, for example; she still has money over after she’s paid for rent, bills, food, take-aways, nights out, clothes, etc.). And there are some details that stretch credulity, such as the big money prize being paid in cash, making the recipient a target for anyone who wants to get their hands on it.  (I asked a reliable source – a regular bingo player – who told me it’d definitely be paid directly into the winner’s bank account.)

Still, these niggles aside, this is a funny, enjoyable production, and you could certainly do worse things with your evening than spend it in the company of these hopeful gamblers.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

The Lover

23/01/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

I was sold on this production from the moment I saw it featured Susan Vidler, whom I’ve long admired. (It’s 1997, there’s a TV movie everyone’s talking about: Macbeth on the Estate. Vidler gives the best portrayal of Lady Macbeth I’ve ever seen. There’s been a score of contenders since, but she still wears the crown.)

In The Lover, she plays a very different role. She’s The Woman, both mother and future self of The Girl (the child is mother of the woman, I suppose) and almost the sole voice of the play. To clarify, she live-narrates the story of her past, and also provides a recorded voice-over for other actors who mime flashbacks. In the flashbacks, she’s The Mother; Amy Hollinshead plays The Girl. And it’s all very clever and artful – perhaps too much so?

Still, based on Margeurite Duras’s novel set in 1920s Saigon, this co-production between the Lyceum, Stellar Quines and Scottish Dance Theatre was surely never aiming for the mainstream. It’s a complex tale of love and loss, of colonialism and privilege, of innocence and experience. If ever a tale were to lend itself to a dual-form adaptation, The Lover is surely it: its poetic language ripe for interpetation in this way.

Directed by Fleur Darkin and Jemima Levick, The Lover shows how dance and theatre are complementary arts. The literal and the metaphorical are interwoven in the telling, The [poor teenage French] Girl’s love affair with The [rich Chinese twenty-seven-year-old] Man (Yosuke Kusano) a slow, sensual unravelling of accepted social norms. The gulf that develops between her and her family; the way she is subsumed by her sexuality: these are beautifully conveyed.

But it’s not an easy watch. That voice-over – so intricately worked, so delicately spoken – has such a distancing effect that it renders all emotion mute. The very control and precision of the movement makes the sex scenes curiously staid, a notion that is heightened by the Ken and Barbie genitals suggested by flesh-coloured underwear. And perhaps I’m being a bit dense (I haven’t read the novel; this may be made clear there), but I’m not at all sure what the deal is between the girl and her big brother, Paulo (Francesco Ferrari).

There is artistry and skill a-plenty here; it’s a beautifully constructed piece. Will it be a big-hitter, a seat-filler? I’m not convinced on that score. A play to appreciate, maybe, rather than one to enjoy.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield