The Traverse Theatre

The Dark

12/02/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Nick Mahona’s story, set in Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1979, is based on his personal experience of being smuggled across the border to Kenya by his mother when he was just a small child. Performed by two actors, who take on a whole host of roles, the story is set mostly aboard a crowded matatu (or minibus) as it travels along deserted country roads after curfew, the passengers all risking possible execution if they are caught by Amin’s soldiers.

Michael Balogun makes an engaging narrator for the tale and he’s ably supported  by Akiya Henry, who plays Nick’s mother, several other passengers and various people who are encountered at stops along the way. It’s an ambitious undertaking, that mostly works. There are occasional moments as the story unfolds when it is not always immediately apparent which particular character is talking – an effect that is sometimes  heightened when both actors take turns at the same character – but it’s nonetheless an affecting narrative.

The staging is simply done with a variety of seats being moved about to represent various locations en route, and the bus roof looks like a huge overhead bedstead, suspended on ropes – perhaps symbolising a safe house somewhere in the world. There is also an OHP, which displays a series of vintage photographs and headings to let us know exactly where we are on the journey.

The atmosphere of fear and suspicion is chillingly conveyed and the actors give it everything they have. And this matters, because Mahona’s story is an undoubtedly powerful one and moreover, one that absolutely needs to be told.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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Walking On Walls

walking-on-walls

19/10/16

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Walking On Walls by Morna Pearson is part of the Traverse’s latest ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’ season. There are five plays, each one shown at 1pm from Tuesday to Saturday, with one later performance on a Friday evening. It’s a successful concept and clearly very popular; today’s show is sold out. And really, what’s not to like about a £12.50 theatre ticket that also includes a savoury pie and a pint of ale (wine or soft drinks are also available)?

We’ve extolled the virtues of the Traverse and have invited friends to join us today, so we’re extra keen for this one to be good. And (quite by chance) Philip met one the actors at an event in Glasgow, last night, which adds another level of pressure; he wants to be able to offer genuine praise!

Luckily, we’re not disappointed. Morna Pearson’s script is sharp and liberally laced with dark humour. It tells the tale of Claire, a young woman still traumatised by the bullying she experienced at school. Her solution is to become a masked vigilante; after work each evening, she stalks the city’s streets, looking for people to help and reporting ‘criminals’ to the police.

As the lights go up, she is keeping an eye on her latest project: a man, bound and gagged, sits listening to her, growing more and more agitated. She’s called the police, she says; they’ll be here soon. But we quickly learn more about Fraser and how his past interconnects with Claire’s.

It’s a simple two-hander in a black box studio, with minimal props and a basic set (two desks, two  chairs, a scattering of stationery). But the simplicity absolutely suits the piece.  Both actors (Helen Mackay and Andy Clark) inhabit their characters convincingly. Their relationship – with all its tensions and revelations – is deliciously  uncomfortable, but there are plenty of laughs amid the heartache and despair.

It might be tough to get a ticket for this, but I do urge you to try. It’s a cracking little play – and the pies are pretty good too.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Cuckooed

Unknown

18/04/15

Cuckooed was one of the hot tickets at last year’s Fringe – so hot, in fact, that we failed to procure tickets for it. So it was great to see it repeated at the Traverse Theatre and to note, that once again, it was absolutely sold out. Luckily we booked early.

Tonight’s show is divided into two halves. Before the titular ‘comedy of betrayal,’ we are treated to forty minutes of chat by writer and star Mark Thomas, focusing mostly on the ‘105 Acts of Minor Dissent’ that he recently set himself. It’s hard to describe Thomas’s act. He’s not exactly a standup, in the sense that there are no real jokes or punchlines here – and yet he has people roaring with laughter, pretty much from the get go. He’s actually an activist, a ‘domestic terrorist’ as the police like to label him, a man who entered the Guinness Book of records for holding 20 protests in 24 hours. Thomas has devoted his life to confronting senseless authority and he manages to make me feel ashamed for not doing more. He’s also a man who doesn’t hold back when talking about those who he feels fall short of being decent human beings. A recent competition he held, to come up with a definition of the word ‘Farage,’ resulted in the following: Farage: the puddle of smelly liquid at the bottom of a rubbish bin. 

Cuckooed is a more complex animal, a blend of theatre, witness-recollections, video and reconstruction. Instead of a programme, we get a paperback copy of the script, which is always a bonus. It tells the story of when Mark was a member of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade and carried out protests alongside his dearest friend, referred to here only as ‘Martin.’ When it becomes apparent that members of the group are being spied on by the arms company, BAE Systems, it soon transpires that there has to be a mole working within CAAT, and, after much digging, suspicion falls upon Martin. Thomas is at first incensed. How could just a hardworking, devoted activist be thought capable of performing such a horrible deception? But, as he begins to probe the evidence himself, a terrible truth is uncovered…

Thomas is a mesmerising performer. This is essentially a monologue (with interjections from witnesses recorded on video screens, cleverly contained within the sliding drawers of filing cabinets), but he carries the show expertly, using all the techniques of a gifted actor. A key scene where his emotion builds to the point where his eyes fill with tears of regret is incredibly moving, and, I believe, impossible to fake. It raises some incredibly cogent questions about the right to privacy and touches on other deceptions – notably the case of undercover policeman John Dines, who conducted a three year relationship with a woman, a member of an anti-capitalist group, simply in order to spy on her and the other members.

It’s a brilliant show, not the angry diatribe it might have been, but thoughtful and measured. At its conclusion, the audience rise to their feet to deliver a well-deserved standing ovation. You can bet that we’ll be booking tickets early for his next show, Trespass, when it comes to Edinburgh in August.

5 stars

Philip Caveney