Traverse Theatre

Who Killed My Father


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Who Killed My Father is based on Édouard Louis’s 2018 autobiographical novel, Qui a tué mon père. Adapted and directed by Nora Wardell, it’s an eviscerating piece. Part polemic, part memoir, this monologue is presented as an address to Édouard (Michael Marcus)’s invisible father, thus casting the audience in the paternal role. It’s an interesting conceit.

Édouard’s father is disabled, thanks to his (literally) back-breaking work in a factory. But Édouard’s relationship with his dad is complicated: although he feels sympathy for the dependent old man he has become, he remains angry with the alcoholic homophobe, who made growing up gay in their small French village so very difficult. Still, now that he is an adult, Édouard is able to take a step back, and finally recognise the systemic inequalities that have shaped his father’s destiny, and to extrapolate from that the myriad ways in which so many marginalised people’s lives are damaged by political figures, uncaring and oblivious to the consequences of their acts. This play – where he denunciates these figures – is Édouard’s revenge.

It’s a compelling idea, but – for me – it doesn’t quite come off. For starters, there’s nothing to indicate that we’re in France until the very end, when a number of French politicians are named and shamed. This should be a powerful moment, but instead it momentarily confuses me, so that I’m mentally relocating the story rather than focusing on the point being made. In addition, the stage is cluttered with a vast array of props that just aren’t used, including a fabulously complex Scalextric. (I only had the figure-eight version when I was young; this one is the stuff of dreams, so it’s particularly frustrating that it’s given such prominence but never called into play.)

In the end, the message feels a little muddled, lost in a scattershot of anecdotes and directorial flourishes.

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Family Tree


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Henrietta Lacks is not a household name – but she should be. The cervical cancer that killed her also produced one of the most important cell lines in medical research, HeLa. Harvested from her tumour without consent, Lacks’ immortal cells (which continue to divide when most would die) have been crucial in the development of the polio vaccine, AIDS and cancer treatments, IVF and more. She died in 1951, but her cells live on, even proving invaluable in the fight against COVID.

So why haven’t we heard of her? The answer is sadly obvious: because she was a Black woman.

Mojisola Adebayo’s play sets out to right this wrong, to give Lacks the recognition she deserves. It also raises some very important questions about consent and compensation. This isn’t just an historic issue. Sure, the USA now has the ‘Common Rule’ clarifying the principles of ethical research, but certain biotech companies have made huge profits from patenting HeLa cell products – and none of the money has ever found its way to her descendants.

Directed by Matthew Xia, Family Tree is a challenging and confrontational piece of theatre, Adebayo’s writing poetic and arresting. Lacks (Aminita Francis) rises from her grave to undo her erasure, to demand we hear her version of the tale. She’s not alone in the graveyard: three slave women also rest there, finally at peace after enduring years of intrusive experimentation at the hands of the so-called father of modern gynaecology, Dr J Marion Sims. There are three Black NHS nurses too, felled by the pandemic in 2020. Ain (Mofetoluwa Akande) is full of righteous anger, mostly against the ‘Why People’ who claim to be allies until it’s inconvenient. Lyn (Aimée Powell) and Bibi (Keziah Joseph) are quieter and more philosophical, the latter using the leisure time that death affords her to finally read Toni Morrison. Although Lacks’ is certainly the most compelling narrative – she is, quite literally, centre stage – the other women’s stories are important too, contextualising Lacks’ experiences, and showing how she is just one link in a shocking, still ongoing chain. The actors are all electric, their performances poised and bold, intense and heartfelt.

However, despite the painful subject matter, this is not a piece of trauma porn. Although the story is about the horrendous ways Black women have been abused, Adebayo also shows the women’s strength and joy, turning them into dancing goddesses, recognising them for the queens they are.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

How Not To Drown


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The first thing that captures my attention as I enter the auditorium is Becky Minto’s extraordinary set: a raised island of wooden planks, stark, powerful, simultaneously ramshackle and magisterial. There’s no other set dressing here, just two high towers of lighting on either side of the island, leaving lighting designer Zoe Spurr and composer/sound designer Alexandra Faye Braithwaite to layer on the atmosphere. Onto the dramatically sloping set climb the performers, five actors led by Dritan Kastrati, whose real life story is the inspiration for what we are about to watch (and who co-wrote the script with Nicola McCartney). But it’s clear from the outset that this will be an ensemble piece, as each of the actors in turn – Ajjaz Awad, Esme Bayley, Daniel Cahill and Sam Reuben – step forward to announce that they too are Dritan.

The drama unfolds, as the cast move back and forth on that precarious island, each actor in turn slipping into the role of Dritan, and skipping nimbly out again to portray a whole selection of other characters. There is never a moment’s confusion as to who is who. Director/ choreographer Neil Bettles has the cast drilled to perfection, as – with a modicum of props – they evoke a series of diverse locations and situations… and then, in a jaw-dropping coup de théâtre, the island begins to move.

Dritan’s story is one of abandonment and survival. At the age of eleven, he’s despatched by his well-meaning father from the family home in Albania, as war threatens to engulf the country. What follows is Dritan’s arduous attempt to get to his older brother somewhere in England, a difficult and sometimes dangerous journey. A sequence that portrays a perilous sea crossing feels horribly immersive, capturing the panic and uncertainty of the situation.

 Once in the UK, Dritan is confronted by the punishing series of hurdles faced by all young asylum seekers – a thankless procession of foster families, social workers and interpreters, each trying to give this boy whatever he asks for, but failing to provide him with the one thing he really needs: a family. We watch as his hopes and expectations crumble into dust.

How Not to Drown isn’t easy viewing, yet I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s a powerful and affecting examination of the failure of bureaucracy, demonstrating all too clearly the problems that occur when it comes to caring for a child, cast adrift from everything he knows. Dritan Kastrati is only one of millions of people who have survived this awful situation, but his play brilliantly illuminates the experience like a beacon shining in a storm.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney



Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

This week’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint is the pithily titled Babs by Morna Young. We’ve enjoyed Young’s work before – Lost at Sea and Aye, Elvis are both excellent examples of Scottish theatre – so we arrive at the Traverse this Tuesday lunch time with high expectations. The set, by Gemma Patchett and Jonny Scott, doesn’t give much away: there are a few fir trees, some pipes, a couple of skulls and a ukelele – an eclectic mix, promising something unusual.

We’re not disappointed.

Bethany Tennick plays Lisa, a troubled young quine from Aberdeen, who lives for her annual holiday with her best pal, Shelley. Apart from that, all Lisa has is her guitar, her tunes and a truckload of attitude. So when Shelley decides she’d rather go away with her new boyfriend, Gareth, Lisa is raging. How dare Shelley ditch her? Desperate and drunk, she signs up for a solo retreat, which turns out to be life-changing, because ‘Babs’, the mysterious host, is none other than Baba Yaga – she of the iron teeth and chicken-legged house… Why has she invited Lisa here?

Young’s decision to write the piece in Doric dialect gives it an urgent authenticity, underscoring Lisa’s need to be true to herself, even as she searches for a new identity. She is a bold, in-your-face character, and Tennick imbues her with such spark and vim that it’s impossible not to warm to her, even when she’s being completely unreasonable. The songs (composed by Tennick) add an extra dimension, showing us that Lisa has the potential to be more than ‘a sheep’, even if she can’t yet see it herself. The plaintive ode to her mother is especially emotive.

Despite its dark themes, Babs is essentially a comedy, and I spend much of the fifty-minute running time laughing at Lisa’s disproportionate outrage, or at her renditions of the other characters who populate the tale. Director Beth Morton keeps the pace snappy, and every joke lands well with the audience.

I’m fair-tricket to say this is another winner from 2023’s first PPP season.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Burning Bright


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

This latest season of A Play, A Pie and A Pint promises to be a good ‘un. Hot on the heels of last week’s sprightly Until It’s Gone comes Burning Bright, Áine King’s apocalyptic depiction of the climate crisis engulfing us. It’s no surprise to learn that this play won the 2022 David MacLennan award: it’s evocative and visual, a big story told in small fragments, as economical as poetry.

We are presented with three disparate narratives, linked by an over-arching theme of environmental collapse. Suzanne Magowan is a TV journalist desperately chasing a story about Australian wildfires, more interested in saving her career than in saving the earth. Hannah Jarrett-Scott plays a grief-stricken young woman with an eco-tourism business, taking rich adventurers on her boat, The Ice Princess, to see the polar ice caps before they’re gone. And Adam Buksh is a survivor: he’s escaped floods and tigers in his native India, and now he’s navigating racism on his Glasgow street.

The performances are all strong, the characters compellingly portrayed, and the writing is gorgeously cinematic – the image of a blazing horse, for example, is horribly mesmerising. Roxana Haines (director), Gemma Patchett and Jonny Scott (designers) achieve astonishing things with a tiny stage and a minimal set, so that it’s easy to suspend my disbelief and accept that I am, simultaneously, in the Arctic, Australia, Scotland and India, witnessing fire, floods and melting ice caps.

The conceit works to emphasise the ubiquity and urgency of climate breakdown. Even these characters, closer to the epicentres of disaster than most of us, are each only aware of one aspect of the problem. But here in the audience, we are shown the cumulative effect: their monologues are tangled and entwined, so that we see their interdependence and the extent of the catastrophe that’s looming over us. The image is there throughout, cleverly captured in the juxtaposition of the encroaching wave of plastic waste that dominates the set, and the tiny dinghy representing our precarious position.

Burning Bright is a superbly accomplished piece of theatre, skilfully illuminating why climate change is an issue we can’t afford to ignore.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Until It’s Gone


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

This sprightly two-hander packs a lot into its fifty-minute running time. Until It’s Gone is the first of 2023’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint offerings, and it’s a corker: Alison Carr’s tight and cleverly-crafted script imagines a future where all of womankind have disappeared, and men are left to make the best of a world without them. In stark contrast to Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s Herland, where women have created a female Utopia, this male-only Scotland is a dystopian mess, its citizens desperate for the women to return from their unspecified and unexplained exile.

We’re offered a glimpse into this terrifying scenario through a simple park-bench, chalk-and-cheese set-up: a meeting between an eager young man of twenty-five (Sean Connor) and a gruff older one (Billy Mack). They’ve been matched by a supposedly ‘world-beating’ app, but this is not a date – or at least, not a conventional one. They are two avowedly heterosexual, cis-gendered men, following a strict government mandate to ‘connect’ – because things aren’t sustainable as they are. Through this smallest of microcosms, Carr seeds just enough information into the men’s darkly comic dialogue to allow us to envisage the bigger picture, the tortured society in which they live, where schools are closed, most interactions happen online, and everything feels wrong.

The characters are beautifully realised, played with warmth and humour by Connor and Mack, even as they expose the men’s real pain. The generational divide is deftly managed, the initial chasm between them narrowing as they talk and share confidences, slowly realising that they’re more alike than not, that their shared fate should bind them rather than pull them apart.

Under Caitlin Skinner’s assured direction, the play’s political points are clearly made without ever feeling intrusive. I like the cheeky use of tableaux and blackouts to mark the passage of time at the beginning, and the set – by Gemma Patchett and Jonny Scott – is modest but strikingly effective. I’m especially drawn to the myriad images of women adorning the tumbledown walls, and find myself wondering if they are ‘missing’ posters or simply photos, there to remind the men of what they’ve lost. 

Because, of course, you never know until it’s gone…

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield



Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A school trip to the Paisley Witches’ Memorial proves momentous in Moonset, Maryam Hamidi’s spirited play about four teenage girls, who just need a little bit of power…

It’s a great premise. Surely the worst thing about being an adolescent is the lack of autonomy. There’s so much to deal with (exams, hormones, growing up, life), so much conflicting advice, so many rules and boundaries and exhortations to “be good”.

Roxy (Layla Kirk) feels like she’s on fire. Her best friend, Bushra, seems to be cooling on her, her mum (Zahra Browne) is concealing something, Nat 5s are looming – and why hasn’t she started her period yet? But Bushra (Cindy Awor) has her own problem – she has questions about her sexuality, and the answers seem scary. Meanwhile, Gina (Leah Byrne) is a ball of restless energy, bouncing from one calamity to another, and Joanne (Hannah Visocchi) isn’t sure her boyfriend, Gary, is quite the guy she’d like him to be.

They all feel powerless. And, like Abigail Williams and her friends before them, the girls seek strength in magic.

The teens’ exuberance is funny and engaging, but it doesn’t conceal the real problems they have to deal with. Hamidi’s bright, lively script grapples with dark themes – touching on coercive control, child abuse, immigration and cancer – treading this fine line with confidence. Director Joanna Bowman nimbly encapsulates the emotional turbulence of the formative years; she doesn’t hold back. We watch as the girls take terrible risks; they are as reckless and bold as only adolescents can be. And we’re on the roller-coaster with them, hoping against hope that the consequences of their actions won’t prove too appalling…

The set (by Jen McGinley) is a jumble, like the kids’ minds, with myriad items competing for attention. It works well, the empty circle in the middle representing their safe space: the junk yard, ironically, is the one place with nothing filling it, offering them room to think, to cement their friendship and ultimately find their hidden strengths. There are some pretty nifty effects too. I like the way the fire is created with smoke and light (courtesy of Simon Hayes). Movement director Vicki Manderson deserves a mention too: this is a kinetic piece and the momentum never flags, the performers interacting seamlessly with the space.

The set-up works well, leaving me scared for the girls and their futures. No spoilers here – suffice to say that, after the coup de théâtre at the end of the first act, the second provides a pay-off that is unexpected but satisfying. Although I’m crying as the lights go down, I’m also left with a feeling of hope.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Love Beyond (Act of Remembrance)


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Love Beyond (Act of Remembrance) is billed as ‘a love story – but not a typical one’. And yet this play, by Ramesh Meyyappan is, like all tales of love and loss, at once unique and ubiquitous, quirky and commonplace.

We meet Harry (Meyyappan) as he moves into a care home. He has dementia, and he’s also deaf. His new carer, May (Elicia Daly), is sweet and attentive, but she doesn’t know sign language, although she is ‘going on a course’. Naturally, Harry’s disorientation is heightened by the pair’s inability to communicate. Matthew Lenton’s skilful direction ensures the audience is drawn in, as those of us who can’t sign miss much of what Harry says, while some of those who are deaf presumably miss May’s words. It’s nicely done: we’re all given enough information to understand what’s going on, while also experiencing a little of Harry’s alienation from his new home, and May’s frustration at not being able to do her job.

The set (by Becky Minto) comprises three moveable screens. At first these are mirrors, magnifying Harry’s discomfort: the reflection of the audience staring at him adds to the sense that he no longer has a private life, or much autonomy at all. Cleverly, the screens are also transparent: lit from behind, they reveal Harry’s jumble of memories. We get to know the young Harry (Rinkoo Barpaga) and his true love, Elise (Amy Kennedy): we see them meet and fall in love; we see their joy and their sorrow, their prime and their decline. There’s something spellbinding about the way these images appear and disappear, and Harry’s yearning for Elise is palpable and heartbreaking.

The strength of this piece lies in the movement, which is precise, slow and beguiling – a realisation of the phrase ‘poetry in motion’. There is a gentle earnestness here that defies cynicism, so that a simple swimming mime becomes a thing of beauty; the act of putting on slippers becomes profound.

Composer David Paul Jones’s soundtrack is integral to the piece. The music is by turns melodic and jarring, light and intense, reflecting Harry’s inner turmoil just as clearly as the mirrors.

This year’s Manipulate Festival has thrown up some absolute gems – and this is one of them.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Theatre Bouquets 2022

After the slim pickings of the last two years, 2022 feels like a palpable return to form: finally, emphatically, theatre is back! We’ve relished the wide range of productions we’ve seen over the year. As ever, it was difficult to choose our particular favourites, but those listed below have really resonated with us.

Singin’ in the Rain (Festival Theatre, Edinburgh)

Singin’ in the Rain is a delight from start to finish. It never falters, never loses pace and manages to honour the great film that inspired it. One of the most supremely entertaining shows I’ve seen in a very long time. Slick, assured, technically brilliant – it never puts a hoof wrong.

Wuthering Heights (King’s Theatre, Edinburgh)

In this Wise Children production, Emma Rice strips Wuthering Heights down to its beating heart, illuminates its essence. This is a chaotic, frenzied telling, a stage so bursting with life and energy that it’s sometimes hard to know where to look. It’s dazzling; it’s dizzying – and I adore it. 

Red Ellen (Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Red Ellen is a fascinating tale, ripped from the pages of political history. Wils Wilson’s propulsive direction has Ellen hurtling from one scene to the next, which keeps the pot bubbling furiously.

Prima Facie (NT Live, The Cameo, Edinburgh)

This is a call to action that walks the walk, directly supporting The Schools Consent Project, “educating and empowering young people to understand and engage with the issues surrounding consent and sexual assault”. It’s also a powerful, tear-inducing play – and Jodie Cromer is a formidable talent.

Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen (Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh)

Samuel Barnett inhabits his role completely, spitting out a constant stream of pithy one liners and wry observations with apparent ease. Marcelo Dos Santos’ script is utterly compelling and Matthew Xia’s exemplary direction ensures that the pace is never allowed to flag.

Hungry (Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh)

This sharply written two-hander examines the relationship between Lori (Eleanor Sutton), a chef from a relatively privileged background, and Bex (Melissa Lowe), a waitress from the local estate. This is a cleverly observed exploration of both class and race, brilliantly written and superbly acted. Hungry is a class act, so assured that, even amidst the host of treasures we saw at this year’s Roundabout, it dazzles like a precious gem.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (Summerhall (Main Hall), Edinburgh)

It’s hard to encapsulate what makes this such a powerful and moving experience, but that’s exactly what it is – a spellbinding slice of storytelling, so brilliantly conceived and engineered that it makes the incredible seem real. You’ll believe a man can fly.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh)

Let’s face it, we’ve all seen Macbeth in its various shapes and guises – but I think it’s fairly safe to say we’ve never seen it quite like this. This raucous, visceral reimagining of the story captures the essence of the piece more eloquently than pretty much any other production I’ve seen.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

This was Martin McDonagh’s debut piece and, while it might not have the assuredness of his later works, it nonetheless displays all the hallmarks of an exciting new talent flexing his muscles. The influence of Harold Pinter is surely there in the awkward pauses, the repetitions, the elevation of innocuous comments to a weird form of poetry – and the performances are exemplary.

Don’t. Make. Tea. (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

Don’t. Make. Tea. is a dystopian vision of an all-too credible near future, a play laced with dark humour and some genuine surprises. Cleverly crafted to be accessible to the widest possible audience, it’s an exciting slice of contemporary theatre.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Once Upon a Snowstorm


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Described as a play for children aged 5-8 and their families, Once Upon a Snowstorm is based on the popular picture book by Richard Johnson. It tells the tale of a boy (Fay Guiffo) and his dad (Michael Sherin), who live in a woodland cottage. One day, they go out to hunt in the snow, but are separated and the boy is lost. Eventually, he ftakes shelter in a cavern and falls asleep. When he awakes, he finds himself surrounded by friendly animals, who teach him all about their ways…

It’s a charming – if slight – tale. Although Jo Timmins’ adaptation includes dialogue, it retains the quiet solemnity of Johnson’s wordless original, as well as the gentle pace. It feels true to the book, capturing its tranquil, earnest tone, and illuminating the boy’s sense of wonder. I’m especially entranced by the music (composed by David Paul Jones), and the way Guiffo’s violin is integrated seamlessly into her performance.

Traverse 2 has been reconfigured for this show, and it’s good to see it being used imaginatively. The acting space is tented with crumpled white sheets, and the seating comprises rows of ‘tree stumps’ (covered stools) and cushions, presumably intended for the wee ones to sit on and, at the back, a single row of adult-sized chairs. On entering, we’re asked to hang up our coats and remove our shoes, which somehow adds to the sense of occasion: something different is happening here. Largely, it works well, although there are some issues with the sight lines. There’s no one organising the smallest children to the front rows, and not enough full-sized seats for the grown-ups accompanying them. I can understand the wish to create something intimate, with no clear boundaries. But it might make sense to place the beautiful model house on a higher plinth, so that we can actually see it, and for the boy not to spend quite so much time sitting or lying on the floor.

Sherin and Guiffo embody all the different animals, and their performances are enchanting. Perhaps there’s a little too much repetition for me (the same route through the audience; three different lots of projected images), but the target audience seem to lap it up and, at forty-five minutes, there’s no time for this to flag.

Once Upon a Snowstorm is a sweet, simple tale, with some beautiful imagery.

3 stars

Philip Caveney