JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE LIFE OF STUFF at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, EAT YOUR HEART OUT at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and THE CHERRY ORCHARD at Dundee Rep, for Scotsman Arts 10.9.09
The Life Of Stuff 3 stars ***
Eat Your Heart Out 4 stars ****
The Cherry Orchard 3 stars ***
WHEN THE GOOD TIMES roll, it’s one of the key functions of theatre to remind us of life’s ugly underbelly; but in hard times, things become more complicated. Back in 1992, when Simon Donald’s Life Of Stuff first appeared at the Traverse Theatre, Britain stood on the verge of the longest period of sustained economic growth in its postwar history. The post-1980’s search for happiness through high consumption was spreading through society like a rash, and sending a whole generation on the quest for drink-and-drugs-driven highs that was so vividly captured, four years later, in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. Society needed to be reminded of the underlying savagery of this loadsamoney culture; and a generation of “in-your-face” playwrights took on the job.
What on earth, though, is the function of a play like The Life Of Stuff on a rainy Monday in Pitlochry, seventeen years on? Set in an old Glasgow warehouse turned nightclub, the play wanders from room to room through the empire of half-baked drugs-and-vice boss Willie Dobie, a youngish guy in a leather jacket. Outside the office, his janitor-cum-enforcer Davey Arbogast is sweeping floors, and talking menacingly to a pair of drug-crazed “floozies” in outrageous nightclub gear. In the basement, an innocent guy in underpants is waiting for news of his kidnapped boyfriend. Keeping him company is Janice, a seriously drunk girl employed by Dobie to keep business clients happy. And up on the roof, Dobie indulges in fantasies of himself as monarch of all he surveys. As the evening wears on, the threat of extreme violence explodes into reality; and the whole story is presented as an obscene black comedy, in which the shock of the situation makes us laugh in horrified recognition.
At Pitlochry, though, the audience is neither young nor arrogant, and is already grimly aware of how tough life can be. The bubble economy of the last 15 years has collapsed; and the sight of a generation of young people on a no-holds-barred quest for drink and drugs no longer looks funny, as society begins to pick up the tab for a generation of wrecked livers and ruined lives. In a fine programme note, director John Durnin likens the fierce visceral energy of Donald’s play to that of a Jacobean revenge tragedy.
If there is a sense of tragedy latent in the play, though, it fails to emerge from Durnin’s energetic but confused production, which goes on trying for laughs long after the search has become hopeless. And although there are some fine perfornances here – notably from Isabel Joss, Shirley Darroch and Irene Allen as the three lost girls, and from Alan Steele as the sinister Arbogast – the whole show lacks the sense of elegiac distance and shape that might make it work for a Pitlochy audience, in the year 2009.
The Italian playwright Renato Gabrielli belongs, in part, to the same in-your-face generation, dedicated to exposing the dark underside of western society; but there’s no denying the elegance with which he pursues this now slightly old-fashioned project in Eat Your Heart Out, playing this week in the Play Pie and Pint lunchtime season at Oran Mor. Presented in a deft English version by Ann Marie Di Mambro, the play describes a bar-room encounter between a woman carrying a left-wing newspaper, and a man she wants to get to know, for reasons of her own.
The point of the play is that as the conversation develops, we come to realise that those reasons are beyond bizarre, and indeed downright horrifying. In a brief 50 minutes, Gabrielli manages to say a great deal about the pathology of a society hooked on the glamour of eroticised violence, on false concepts of radicalism, and on an amoral idea of the right to consume. In Graham Eatough’s production, played out around the theatre bar, Paul Cunningham is superb as the man, if Mairi Morrison sometimes seems uneasy as the woman; and Nikki Foster makes a fierce, haunting impression as an opera-singing barmaid in blue jeans, whose radiant voice sings out the yearning humanity that, in all this, is somehow lost.
There’s no such nastiness, of course, in Chekhov’s magnificent Cherry Orchard, that profoundly realistic play about (mostly) nice people doing the best they can, and making a miserable mess of things anyway. Vladimir Bouchler’s new production at Dundee Rep, presented in a fine, sharply-worded new version by Stuart Paterson, lays Chekhov’s great play about a dying class in a changing world before us in all its rich detail; but it never offers a single clue as to why it’s there, or what Bouchler thinks this mighty story has to say to our troubled times.
The result is an aimless, overlong show, full of fine performances each of which seems to belong to its own private production, rather than to some coherent ensemble project. Irene Macdougall is a wonderful, exhausted, fraying Ranevskaya, without even a maid to keep her hair straight; and John Kazek is a memorably awkward Lopakhin, desperate for the life-changing kiss Emily Winter’s fine, angry Varya just cannot give him.
In the end, though, even Neil Warmington’s beautiful, open set cannot transform this into a show with any real sense of pupose. Small-scale “poor” theatre is booming, large-scale spectacle has never been more popular. But in the middle, main-stage companies struggle to find the right tone; so much so that Dundee’s Cherry Orchard and Pitlochry’s Life Of Stuff might just as well swap stages, in the hope of each show finding an audience more responsive to its qualities, and more forgiving of its limitations.
The Life Of Stuff at Pitlochry Festival Theatre 12 September (matinee), and in repertoire until 14 October. Eat Your Heart Out at Oran Mor until 12 September. The Cherry Orchard at Dundee Rep until 19 September.