Daily Archives: August 10, 2010

Speechless, Freefall, Penelope, The Not-So-Fatal-Death Of Grandpa Fredo

THEATRE
Speechless
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****
Penelope
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****
Freefall
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****
The Not-So-Fatal Death Of Grandpa Fredo
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****

ENGLAND, SCOTLAND, IRELAND, WALES.  There are shows reflecting the inner life of all four nations in this year’s Traverse programme; and enough energy thundering around the place to suggest that more dialogue among the four theatre cultures could only be a good thing.

Sherman Cymru of Wales and Shared Experience of England join forces, for example, to create Speechless, adapted by Linda Brogan and director Polly Teale from Marjorie Wallace’s book The Silent Twins, and set in the troubled England of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  Wallace’s book tells the true story of Jennifer and June Gibbons, twin black girls living with their family on RAF bases in Wales and south-west England.  In their teens, they have become mutinously silent with everyone except each other, while at school they alternate between total silence and violent rage.

Teale and Brogan’s play is a dark, brutal and yet somehow delicate attempt to enter into the heart of  the girls’ experience over two or three key years, when they are excluded from school, thrust violently into adult sexual life, and finally caught up in the criminal justice system.  And despite the modesty of its staging in the small Traverse Two space, what’s striking about Speechless is the way its script captures a huge, resonating and conflicting world of colonial history, loyalties and identities; as the two girls recognise their own alienation from a society riven by unacknowledged grassroots racism, and obsessed first by the Silver Jubilee, and then by the wedding of Charles and Diana.   All this is perfectly captured in Teale’s production, without fuss or spectacle; and Natasha Gordon and Demi Oyediran give two unforgettable performances, as Jennifer the dominant twin, and June, who sometimes seems to yearn for escape from their tense shared world.

Compared with this profoundly serious piece of theatre, this year’s Traverse One shows from Ireland and Scotland seem distinctly playful and showy, and a bit self-absorbed.  Michael West’s Freefall, staged by the Corn Exchange Company of Dublin, is a beautifully-staged piece of post-modern Irish bourgeois drama, which seeks to capture the mood of Ireland in the moment after the financial shock by telling the story of  A, a middle-aged unemployed man in a stale marriage to a discontented wife, whose life reaches a sudden terminal crisis the morning after a disastrous dinner-party.

If A’s journey from impoverished childhood to affluence and sudden collapse symbolises the dying Ireland of the Celtic Tiger, it does it in a fiercely introverted way, without politics or perspective.  But there’s no denying the beauty and eloquence of Annie Ryan’s staging, on an open stage full of moving hospital curtains and shifting grey and white light; or the quality of the acting; or the stunning impact of the play’s final moments, which moved many in the audience to tears.

Enda Walsh’s latest play Penelope, from Druid Theatre of Galway, is also about death; but here, the references are fiercely classical, and the style absurdist to the point of foolishness.  On an island in the Mediterranean, four men sit or stand about in the bottom of an empty swimming-pool, awaiting the imminent return of a man who is likely to kill them.   Two of the men are old and in dressing gowns.  One is approaching middle age, but displaying his fit physique in tiny pink trunks.  The other is young, but a skinny fool.

The point of the story is that they are competing for a chance of survival by winning the affections of the abandoned Queen Penelope, who appears on a high platform above the pool every fifteen minutes or so, silent and exquisite, to hear their wild, poetical or theatrical bids for life and love.  The performances are dazzling, particularly from Karl Shiels as the seedy speedo warrior, and Niall Buggy as the old man who almost wins Penelops with his poetry.  I was left, though, with a feeling that for all its vividness and flair, Mikel Murfi’s production, and Sabine Dargent’s design, are just a shade too busy, cluttered and preoccupied with themselves to let Walsh’s poetry flow, and shine as it should.

As for the Scottish group Vox Motus’s new show The Not-So-Fatal-Death Of Grandpa Fredo – well, apart from a nod to the kind of moose-gutting sensibility  recently brought to the political stage by Sarah Palin, let’s be clear that this is a show whose main theme is its own astonishing unfolding set, a slanty shed which twirls about at warp speed, being transformed into this main street and that cafe, and finally – well, I won’t give it away.

There’s plenty of wit and energy here, in the tale of the shit frontier town of Reliance Falls, where the Palinesque mayor Marilyn Conquest discovers a mad Norwegian hippy called Fredo running a backwoods cryogenic lab where he has frozen his own Grandpa.  The local forces of law, order, and the media are mobilised; the multi-talented cast sing some fantastic satirical songs by composer and musical director Michael John McCarthy.   And at the end, the show achieves a moment of real pathos; and sends the audience home delighted by an evening balanced on a visible knife-edge of technical tricksiness, and too preoccupied with that to trouble them with much serious thought at all.

All shows until 29 August;  pp. 290, 278, 254, 275.

ENDS ENDS