The Mystery Of Irma Vep, The Year Of The Horse, Will Shu

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, THE YEAR OF THE HORSE at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and WILL SHU at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Review, 27.2.09
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The Mystery Of Irma Vep   2 stars **
The Year Of The Horse   4 stars ****
Will Shu   3 stars ***

HOW THRILLED are you, in this year of grace 2009, by the mere sight of a male actor dressed up as a woman?  And how excited are you by tacky horror movies, as a genre to be lovingly sent up?   If your answer to both questions is “not very”, then the Royal Lyceum Theatre, this month, is not the place for you.

Because for some reason – no doubt a worthy intention to cheer us up with a bit of low-budget silliness, in these dark times – Mark Thomson of the Lyceum, and Ian Grieve of Perth Theatre, have joined forces to inflict on their audiences one of the most over-rated pieces of camp foolery ever to emerge from the New York theatre scene of the 1980’s.  Charles Ludlam’s Mystery Of Irma Vep was first seen off Broadway in 1984, and rapidly became a cult hit.   Set in a country house called Mandacrest, the play represents a strange collision between the worlds of Daphne Du Maurier, the Marx Brothers, and the Night Of The Living Dead, as the new Lady Hillcrest battles to lift a curse brought down on the house by her Egyptologist husband Edgar, and his spooky first wife Irma Vep (spot the anagram).

The joke is that the story features eight characters, all played by the same two actors, who must be of the same sex; cue much opportunity for showbiz hilarity, as two big, hairy men – in this case, Scottish stage and small-screen stars Andy Gray and Steven McNicoll – fling themselves through a series of outrageous costumes, strangulated voices and silly walks, in the effort to steer the story towards a happy ending.

The problem with Irma Vep, though, is that it just isn’t a sharp enough satire to sustain its own two-hour length.   The film genres Ludlam sends up have plenty to say about class, power and Empire, and about sex and violence; some of those themes might even be illuminated by a bit of cross-dressing.  But Ludlam can’t even decide whether his subject is supernatural horror, or ordinary human wickedness; instead, he relies on the raw theatrical impact of men in skirts to reduce at least some of the audience to hysterics, and then busks through a feeble skit on familiar horror-movie scenarios that would barely sustain a ten-minute sketch

Steven McNicoll and Andy Gray give this turkey of a show their all, with Gray producing some of the finest theatrical double-takes ever seen on a Scottish stage in the role of Lady Enid.  But the play itself is so void of meaning that it soon becomes screamingly dull to anyone not obsessed with the minutiae of horror-film references, or continuously thrilled by the sight of McNicoll and Gray in their frocks.  Personally, I’m all for a bit of silliness at this time of year.   But the boredom is unforgivable; and the expense of good Scottish theatrical expertise on such weak material – beautifully designed and lit by Becky Minto and Kai Fischer – is enough to make a strong woman weep.

The Scottish-based cartoonist Richard Horne – known professionally as Harry Horse – died two years ago, under circumstances so tragic that they have tended to divert attention away from his work.   Now, though, the leading actor and activist Tam Dean Burn has stepped in with a timely reminder of the sheer, awe-inspiring power of the text and drawings which Horne was producing during the last year of his life, when his editor asked him to write short pieces of prose to accompany his weekly images.

The result is a show which Burn himself describes as being more of an exhibition than a play; on a dark stage, Horne’s last 52 nightmare images of a world riven by war and terror are projected on screen, while Burn – like a slim 21st century urban angel in white hoodie and jeans – speaks the accompanying text.   The politics is blazingly contemptuous of the Bush-Blair era in western politics.  The images are ferocious, unforgettable, strangely beautiful in detail.  The depth of literary and artistic reference, from William Blake to Munch and Bosch, is startling and moving; the poetic quality of Horne’s writing, backed by a muted but chillling score from Keith McIvor, is almost frightening.  And although The Year Of The Horse exists in the debatable lands between theatre and visual art, it is also likely to emerge – in Edinburgh this August – as one of the most powerful Scottish theatre pieces of the year.

There’s a terrific pulse of poetry, too, in this week’s Oran Mor show, Will Shu, by Shetland writer Jacqeline Clark.   In what feels like a 30-minute fragment of a much bigger drama, three women gather on a Shetland beach.  Brenda and Jess are a mother and daughter riven by grief over the drowning, as a child, of Jess’s little sister; Maggie, from a different time, is one of the women who lost all her menfolk in the Delting drowning disaster of 1901.

The power of the play depends absolutely on the actors’ capacity to draw the audience into the whole world of experience embodied in the characters’ language; and it’s perhaps significant that Pauline Lynch, as the historical figure Maggie, achieves this most perfectly, while Anne Lacey and Claire Yuille struggle to achieve voices balanced between tradition and modernity.  The dramatic potential of Clark’s work is huge, though; and without the true, hard and beautiful far-northern voice in which she speaks, the pattern of Scottish theatre seems incomplete.

The Mystery Of Irma Vep at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 14 March, and at Perth Theatre, 19 March-4 April. The Year Of The Horse at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and Will Shu at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both until tomorrow, 28 February.

ENDS ENDS ENDS

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