JOYCE MCMILLAN on HOORS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, THE DUCKY (Borderline at Kilmarnock Palace Theatre), and BLISS and MUD at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 7.5.09
Hoors 2 stars **
The Ducky 4 stars ****
Bliss 4 stars ****
Mud 3 stars ***
FOR WEEKS NOW, Gregory Burke has been telling every interviewer in sight that his new show, Hoors, is “the disappointing follow-up to Black Watch”; and he’s certainly right about the quality of the play. It’s a bit of a turkey, nothing about it works very well, and it hasn’t a hope of emulating the global success of Burke’s great Iraq War drama, inspired by hours of verbatim interviews with Scottish soldiers.
Where Burke is wrong, though, is in relating this show to Black Watch; because in truth, it is the disappointing sequel to his brilliant 2001 hit Gagarin Way, which set out – as this play does – to explore the dangerous landscape of apathy, punctuated by violence and harm, that lies beyond the end of purposeful social and political life. Set in the footballers’-wives-style home of Fife builder Andy, who has died of a heart attack during his own outrageous stag weekend, the show features a long night of dilatory pre-funeral conversation among Andy’s fiancee Vicky, her younger sister Nikki, Andy’s best friend Stevie, and another mate, Tony, who has flown in from Dubai to pay his respects.
Right from the start, though, the situation rings false, and lacks dramatic energy. Vicky isn’t bothered about the death of the man she was about to marry, preferring to reminisce about her past sexual encounters. Nikki is a memorably horrible girl, a skinny career bunny with neither heart nor wisdom. Tony is just as unpleasant, a sleazy adulterer and compulsive liar; Stevie is a feeble emotional parasite with a weird line in sexual banter.
The point that’s being made is obvious; all four characters are whores, the men even more so than the women. What’s not obvious is why we’re supposed to care; or what scope for real, dynamic comedy there is in a play that, for a solid 95 minutes, sounds the same note of relentless emotional and sexual cynicism, and of more-or-less pointless verbal obscenity. At its best, Jimmy Fay’s production achieves a dream-like, reflective distance from these sad characters, as Conor Murphy’s lavish pink-and-mauve set revolves elegantly and incessantly from lounge to bedroom. And here and there, Fay’s four-strong company – Michael Moreland and Andy Clark in decent form as the men, Lisa Gardner and Catherine Murray distinctly out of sorts as the women – find the odd line or moment that vibrates with Burke’s special capacity for looking sideways at our fast-changing society, and shedding a brilliant comic light on it.
In the end though, this time round, Burke has written a comedy without tension; without tension between the ideal and the actual, without tension between hope and despair, and without tension between two sexes reduced – pretty unconvincingly – to exactly the same level of sexual confusion and moral brain-death. Small wonder that there’s nothing here to spark the verbal brilliance of which Burke is capable, and make it catch fire. And until he finds another situation full of the strong, structured conflict that truly inspires him, I guess that special voice in Scottish theatre is something we’ll have to live without.
There’s much more to enjoy, fortunately, in The Ducky, the second instalment – following last year’s success with The Wall – of D.C. Jackson’s thoughtful tale about growing up in small-town Ayrshire in the 1990’s. The Ducky is set beside a pool on the local river during two long summer days in the late 90’s; and it would be wrong to imply that there’s anything about the play that’s going to set the countryside alight. Nor does Jemima Levick’s attractive production quite achieve the speed and kinetic grace of Gregory Thompson’s version of The Wall, which dealt with the same cluster of characters at a younger and less sombre age.
In a sense, though, Jackson is like a low-key, 21st century version of John Byrne, the influence of whose famous Slab Boys trilogy about growing up in 1950’s Paisley he fully acknowledges. His dialogue lacks the sheer poetic power and brilliance that is Byrne’s trademark. But he achieves the same sense of a huge world of global change glimpsed through honest, inspired and affectionate attention to local detail; he has the same power to keep audiences continuously engaged and entertained. And in Sally Reid, who plays the key role of wee sister Norma, he has found an actress who, at the heart of a fine ensemble, responds to the rhythm of his writing with near-perfect empathy, and huge theatrical flair.
At the Tron, meanwhile, Andy Arnold offers two blisteringly weird and interesting recent plays from North America, which also deal with trapped characters longing for escape. Maria Irene Fornes’s Mud offers a relatively familiar vision of lives stuck in a mire of rural ignorance, near-incest, and thoughtless male crushing of female hopes ande dreams; but Andy Arnold’s deftly-staged production – with fine lighting by Mark Hughes – does it proud, as do three vivid performances from Mark Prendergast, Grant Smeaton, and the wonderful Gabriel Quigley as Mae.
Olivier Choiniere’s Bliss, though – from Quebec, in a brilliant English version by Caryl Churchill – is a much wilder, weirder, and more interesting show. In a sustained 60-minute chorus, Choiniere’s play shows four ordinary people first inspired, then reduced to surreal extremes of suffering and decay, in a world dominated by fan-worship of their favourite singer, Celine. The critique of our crazed celebrity culture is searing, the writing is unforgettable; and Quigley gives another stunning performance as the character called Oracle, who suffers the sharpest decline from respectable fandom into utter horror.
Hooors at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 23 May, and at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 26 May-6 June. The Ducky at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 10-13 June, and on tour; Bliss and Mud at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until Saturday, 9 May. Joyce McMillan’s review of Hoors first appeared in some editions of The Scotsman yesterday.