JOYCE MCMILLAN on LEST WE FORGET at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, WATERPROOF at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and UNDER THE SKIN at the CCA, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 14.5.09
Lest We Forget 3 stars ***
Waterproof 4 stars ****
Under The Skin 2 stars **
WHEN THE PIPER ALPHA oil production platform exploded into fire, late on the evening of 6 July 1988, two things happened that could never be reversed. 167 young working men lost their lives, leaving behind an ocean of grief and loss, particularly in the city of Aberdeen. And the world gained its most powerful image of the true high price of oil: of the Faustian bargain human beings have always made when they try to wrestle wealth from the earth, and of the risk that communities take when they enter into the high-rolling game of the global oil industry.
Mike Gibb’s play commemorating the men of Piper Alpha was first seen in Aberdeen last year, on the 20th anniversary of the disaster; and now it’s being revived by Aberdeen Performing Arts for a short tour partly aimed at fund-raising for the North Sea Flight 85N Memorial Fund, which supports those bereaved by last month’s fatal North Sea helicopter crash. Set in Aberdeen betwen 1981 and 1998, Lest We Forget avoids the recent trend towards verbatim and documentary theatre, as ways of chronicling public events, and instead sets out to create a full-blown fictional family drama about the lives of two workers from the north-east caught up in the disaster – a devil-may-care bachelor called Steven, and his best mate Kenny, a doting family man who has only gone offshore in the hope of providing a better life for his wife and two young children.
What Gibb does is to use this old-fashioned narrative style to give us a sense of the weight and complexity of each of the lives lost; by the time the disaster comes, at the midway interval in this two-hour show, we’re struggling to believe that either of our heroes will not survive the explosion, so used have we become to the bantering dialogue and occasional monologues which drive the story forward. So when one of them is lost, there’s a palpable sense of shock in the audience, and a real empathy for the struggle of the other characters to rebuild their lives around his absence; and to imagine this struggle multiplied 167 times is to begin to sense the endless ripple-effects of the loss, around the Aberdeen area.
There’s nothing fancy about Gibb’s narrative style, and it’s noticeable that his monologue sequences, delivered straight to the audience, are far more theatrical – and better-written – than his dialogue scenes involving wives, girlfriends and family conflicts, which often descent into pure soap-opera cliche.
But Suzanne Lofthus’s production is calm and thoughtful, the staging is modestly effective; and the four performances – from Jamie Begg as Steven, Fraser Sivewright ass Kenny, and Anne Kane Howie and Michelle Bruce as their partners – come straight from the heart. If one the key roles of theatre is to enable a community or a nation to come together to celebrate its achievements and understand its losses, then Lest We Forget fulfils that role as well as any show I’ve seen this year; and it should be received with real warmth, as it travels down the east coast this week, and ends its tour at Dundee Rep, on Friday and Saturday.
There’s more male banter in Waterproof, this week’s offering in the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season at Oran Mor; but in this case, the real power of Andy Duffy’s dialogue is offset by an ending that doesn’t quite follow through. On the bank of a river somewhere in the Highlands, friends Alex and Gordon are trying to enjoy a weekend fishing trip. Alex is mouthy, talkative, a shade hyperactive, and thrilled with himself, a student whose mobile phone, so he says, contains the number of every good-looking woman in Dundee; Gordon is big, brooding, monosyllabic, and full of rage and pain at the loss of the love of his life, Linda, who has just ended their relationship.
Their dialogue is full of fierce intimations of national neurosis, class hatred, and raging sexual jealousy; and when Gordon throws Alex’s mobile phone into the river, things seem about to get nasty. In the end, nothing much happens, beyond two blokes reaffirming the consolations of mateship. But Selma Dimitrijevic’s production builds up a fine, if unfulfilled, sense of menace; and it features two interesting performances from Ryan Fletcher and Ali Craig, in a show that represents a real advance on Duffy’s 2008 Traverse debut play, Nasty, Brutish And Short.
If Mike Gibb’s Piper Alpha play expresses the grief of a whole city, the latest show in Glasgow’s new lunchtime strand – presented by Fiendish Plot at the CCA – is part of that growing body of theatre work that seems designed only to reflect the traumas of fellow drama students and struggling thespians. Sheila is an ambitious young drama graduatewith her eye on success, colleague Harry is her loyal friend and admirer since student days; but when the two achieve unexpected fame as the twin parts of a successful pantomime horse, Sheila finds herself becoming increasingly frustrated and depressed.
Martin McNaughton’s script is basically a self-absorbed monologue in which Sheila argues with herself about fame, fulfilment, art, and the meaning of life, while Harry stands doggedly by, waiting for her to return his love. As a metaphor for general questions about growing up and selling out, the play is underdeveloped; as a study of showbiz neuroses it’s tedious and self-obsessed. But it has a certain neatness of structure that suggests some potential in Martin McNaughton’s writing; even if he needs a stronger subject on which to sharpen his skills.
Lest We Forget at Dundee Rep, 15-16 May. Waterproof at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and Under The Skin at the CCA, Glasgow, both until Saturday.