Any Given Day, The Sunday Lesson

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ANY GIVEN DAY at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and THE SUNDAY LESSON at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 3.6.10
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Any Given Day   4 stars ****
The Sunday Lesson   4 stars ****

TO WATCH LINDA MCLEAN’S new play Any Given Day, at the Traverse, is to feel a whole range of grim recent news stories flickering at the corners of your mind.  There’s the one about the woman who killed herself, and her daughter, after years of cruel harrassment from neighbours over the girl’s learning difficulties.  There’s the one about the woman injured by a shot from an air-gun on her own tower-block balcony.  And there’s the continuing debate, this very week, about the portrayal of life on Kilmarnock’s Onthank estate, in the BBC series The Scheme.

For what McLean’s play does, through its long 50-minute first act, is to examine in minute detail the way of life – the plight, the fears, the occasional happiness – of a couple called Bill and Sadie, once resident in a home for the “mentally defective”, but now released into their own council flat, and into a “community” that seems less than welcoming.  Bill is the older and smarter of the two, equal to many of the practical demands of their life together, and full of protectiveness towards Sadie; yet even he is easily panicked by any variation from the routine of their days.  And Sadie is a sweet, bloated child-woman in her early forties. Perhaps unwittingly pregnant, perhaps just fat, she walks awkwardly, speaks in a strange, stilted poetry of her own, and is a good, sometimes eerily perceptive soul desperately in need of care and protection; and eventually, as a stray stone pings against the reinforced windows, and hostile strangers ring at the doorbell, that fragile protection fails, with terrible consequences.

Meanwhile, in a pub across town, Bill’s harassed niece Jackie – a nice, weary-looking barmaid of forty or so, and Bill and Sadie’s only regular visitor  – is having a different kind of day, illuminated by a rare, positive phone message from her troubled son, and a growing sense of intimacy with her boss, Dave.  Their dialogue forms the second half of the play; and between these two vignettes of four stranded souls trying to find their way through the cold landscape of our society, we in the audience are essentially left alone with our thoughts, about what these stories might mean, and where the contemplation of them takes us.  You could argue that there is an element of “poverty porn” in the scenario, a constant hazard in a society as unequal as Britain now is;  I have no idea whether the first act represents an accurate portrayal of the lives of couples like Bill and Sadie, or just a projection of them, and I would guess that I share that ignorance with most of the audience.  And you could certainly argue that as a play, Any Given Day lacks both dynamism, and variation of mood; in both council flat and bar, it unfolds in a dim grey light that offers plenty of room for thought, but also for repetition and disengagement.

Where Dominic Hill’s production comes close to perfection, though, is in the stunning quality and intensity of the performances delivered by Kathryn and Lewis Howden as Sadie and Bill – the first time this brother-and-sister team have appeared together on stage in Scotland – and by Kate Dickie and Phil McKee as Jackie and Dave.  Feeling their way through the quietly rich texture of McLean’s script, they conjure poetry, beauty, poignancy and a faint celebration of love out of the delicate shades of meaning beneath its subdued surface.  And although it would be difficult to recommend Any Given Day as an evening’s entertainment, or even as a gripping piece of drama, I can guarantee that those who see it will never forget the faces, the lives, or the stories of the four characters McLean has created; even though they might wish that they had emerged from a story with more energy, and less of an air of post-millennial helplessness in the face of social decay.

The final show in this year’s long spring Play, Pie and Pint season, by contrast, is a joyful, tightly-structured 50-minute comedy that could hardly do more to accentuate the positive in our 21st century way of life.  In Cathy Forde’s The Sunday Lesson, Frankie is a lanky lad of 19 or so, keen to learn to drive.  His Dad, known only as Frankie’s Dad, has taken on the dangerous task of teaching him; and over nine or ten scenes, we watch Frankie progress from his first shambolic attempt to get behind the wheel, to the moment when he finally passes his test.

To say that there is nothing very challenging about Forde’s short drama is to understate the case.  From start to finish, Frankie and his Dad are a fairly harmonious pair; Frankie is a sanguine youth well able to cope with his Dad’s frequent bursts of irritation, Dad is a broad-minded soul who obviously loves his son, and has a fine sense of irony about his emerging status as a grumpy old man.

Through this gentle prism, though, Forde manages to tell us quite a bit about the changing face of masculinity in the 21st century, as well as love, music, and what it means to drive a car in our times.  And Joe Douglas’s production, like Dominic Hill’s at the Traverse, is graced with outstanding performances, this time from James Young as Frankie and Jimmy Chisholm as Dad.  The comic timing is magnificent, the Glasgow one-liners come thick and fast, and their faces – as they sit side by side in the front seat of Dad’s old Ford Focus – are often a picture; one of modern manhood under moderate pressure, but keeping on trucking, with the love of a good woman in the background, and a touch of Chuck Berry on the radio.

Any Given Day at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 19 June; The Sunday Lesson at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday.

ENDS ENDS

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