The Traverse Theatre

Thick Skin, Elastic Heart

26/10/10

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Thick Skin, Elastic Heart is billed as ‘a hybrid poetry/drama production’ and I’ll admit, based on that description, my expectations are not particularly high. Let’s just say, I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by such shows in the past. You know the kind of thing. Short pieces of poetry, thoughtful silences, and smatterings of polite applause…

And when I learn that the theme of the show is ‘millennials,’ I’m not exactly overjoyed. I seem to have heard people banging on about that subject a lot recently…

Which only goes to show how wrong you (I) can be.

Touring company Sonnet Youth make a point of showcasing some local talent at every performance so tonight we open with a selection from young poet, Catherine Wilson, who delivers a series of wry, amusing, observational pieces that range from the sweet and poignant, to the downright hilarious. Wilson is a confident, engaging performer and this gets eveything off to a strong start.

And it only gets better.

The pieces that follow, all written by Drew Taylor-Wilson, offer observations on the complexity of modern life: the awful paranoia of job interviews, the tribulations of sexual relationships, a deeply affecting piece about miscarriage… this runs the gamut of the emotions, each successive piece contrasting with the last, so there’s never a sense of repetition – unless it’s deliberate. The show is performed with considerable alomb by Charlotte Driesler, Robert Elkin, Danielle Jam and Cameron Fulton. And it’s not just a series of poems delivered one after the other. Lucy Wild’s choreography has the four performers moving effortlessly around the stage, sometimes delivering monologues, often speaking in unison, augmenting each section with simple costume changes and skilful interaction. To say that I’m spellbound would perhaps be an understatement.

I’ve rarely seen this kind of thing done so well and it exerts a powerful grip on my attention from start to finish. The applause at the end is anything but polite.

After just two nights at The Traverse, the show is moving on for a series of one-off engagements across Scotland. If this should happen to land anywhere near you, do yourself an immense favour and grab a ticket.

I’m confident you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

4. 4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Monstrous Heart

23/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Oliver Emanuel’s The Monstrous Heart takes place in a remote log cabin in the wilds of Canada, where Beth (Charlene Boyd), recently released from a long prison stretch in England, reconnects with her mother, Mag (Christine Entwhistle). It’s clear from the outset that this is not going to be a warm family reunion. The two women have unfinished business, business that relates to the little girl in the next room – and the threat of physical violence hangs heavy in the air.

There’s another protagonist in this story in the (very realistic) form of a dead grizzly bear, stretched out on the kitchen table, where it’s in the process of being stuffed by Mag, who, after an alcoholic past, has somehow rebuilt her life and now works as a respected taxidermist. The bear is a great big metaphor and its massive frame dominates the set, in some cases (perhaps deliberately?) blocking the sight-lines for some of the story’s action. Director Gareth Nicholls does his best to orchestrate the ensuing antics and, to give the actors their due, they subit powerful performances here. Boyd offers a devilish, gleefully nihilistic Beth, while Entwhistle’s Mag is a parcel of twitching uncertainty, never more compelling than when she tells her daughter exactly what she thinks of her.

But the script isn’t as assured as it needs to be and simply leaves too many unanswered questions, rendering the characters somewhat unbelievable. Around the midway point, there’s a scene that is surely intended to transform everything we’ve seen so far, as the bear does a bit more than just lie around – but sadly, it doesn’t quite come off.

Also, this is an extended riff on the plot of Frankenstein; there’s no mistaking it, as it’s  heavy-handedly referenced at one point, just to be sure we’ve got the message. Of course, it’s not this production’s fault that the last play we saw was Rona Munro’s sprightly adapation of that classic tale, but it certainly doesn’t help matters that this incarnation feels somewhat lumbering by comparison.

The Monstrous Heart is all about nature versus nurture, how creators can become as twisted and unpredictable as their creations. It certainly isn’t dull and it keeps me hooked right up to its violent conclusion.

But I am left wanting a little more substance, a little more depth.

Nice bear, though.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

TWA

24/05/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

TWA is a quietly compelling piece of work, a collaboration between the loquacious writer, Annie George, and the silent artist, Flore Gardner. While Gardner mutely adds red line-drawings to the edges of a vast white canvas, George weaves together two disparate tales: Philomela’s mythology of violence and retribution, and a contemporary story of love and loss. Cruelty, we see, has many forms, but so do revenge and power – and there’s more than one way to find your voice.

George is a persuasive storyteller, combining diffidence with a calm authority. She engages without seeming to do very much, just telling her tales, drawing us in. The presence of Gardner, back turned, illuminated by the doodle-style animations constructed and deconstructed as the stories unfold, is at times unsettling, at others reassuring. She’s a comfort to George, brings her wine and clears up after her, but she’s also forceful, confronting us with the graphic imagery of her drawings. We cannot turn away.

The starkness of the red and white colour palette works well here: it’s a simple idea, but so unremitting in its application that it cannot be ignored. Indeed, the whole piece is built on simplicity, duality and juxtaposition – and therein lies its strength.

TWA is undoubtedly unusual: an ambitious, intelligent production that exerts a strange hold over its audience.

Susan Singfield

4 stars

 

Keep on Walking Federico

09/05/19

Keep on Walking Federico is a monologue, written and performed by Mark Lockyer and apparently based around an experience from his own family history. There’s a simple set: a chair, a table, and a floor covered in sand, from which Lockyer periodically unearths items that relate to the story he unfolds. This is all about incidents buried in the past, so that makes perfect sense.

After a family tragedy, Mark arrives in a sleepy little Spanish village, where he has gone to attempt to find a resolution to his sorrows. Lockyer is an accomplished raconteur and he skilfully embodies the various people he encounters during his stay, flitting effortlessly from one to the other: the worldly-wise proprietor of the local bar; the mysterious handsome GP who appears to have criminal connections; a tragic flamenco-dancing female neighbour and a portly Dutchman with a liking for baklava and Miss World pageants. Lockyer also offers us conversations with his mother, who, we slowly begin to realise, is the source of much of Mark’s distress.

Though the performance is strong, the material is perhaps a little too introspective, a little too precious. Though this offers a pleasant enough diversion for an hour or so, it’s conclusion doesn’t really carry sufficient resonance to make it truly memorable.

As for the title, you’ll have to wait until the very end for an explanation.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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

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