Nana, Calendar Girls, The Uncertainty Files

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on NANA at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, CALENDAR GIRLS at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and THE UNCERTAINTY FILES at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 16.9.10
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Nana  3 stars ***
Calendar Girls   3 stars ***
The Uncertainty Files   4 stars ****

IF YOU CAN judge the moral decay of a society by the ferocity and intensity of its sex industry, then Paris in the 1860’s must have been in almost as much trouble as Britain today.  Emile Zola’s mighty story Nana is an unforgettable study of how a society that has lost its moral compass both creates whores, and is devoured by them.  For a few brief years, between the ages of 18 and 21, its doomed heroine Nana – a beautiful, vicious and soulless courtesan who has risen from the gutter by showing off her perfect body in supposedly “artistic” theatre shows – learns how to exploit the hypocrisy and self-indulgence of the wealthy elites around her to the point where powerful men literally crawl at her feet, and bankrupt themselves in pursuit of her favours; like the “golden fly” to which Zola likens her, she devours everything they throw at her, and often does not even deliver the prize.

And as the curtain rises on John Durnin’s final production of this Pitlochry season, it’s difficult not to anticipate great things from a show so well chosen for our time, and so superbly staged on Charles Cusick Smith’s memorable set.  Drenched in faded red plush and yellow gaslight, with a proscenium arch at the rear, the stage tilts towards us like the performance-space of a 19th century music-hall or cabaret, with raw patches of exposed brick in the walls hinting at the ruin of the Franco-Prussian war to come.  And across this set, Durnin’s ten-strong cast waltz and sashay in astonishing style, the men in black tailcoats, the women in an extraordinary range of black dresses – ruffled, ruched, low-cut, high-necked and finally skirtless – that can shift  in seconds from the street-corners of Montmartre to the drawing-rooms of the great and supposedly good.

The set and costumes, though, carry a weight of meaning that the show never fully exploits; mainly because John Durnin has chosen to tell the story through Olwen Wymark’s 1987 stage version for Shared Experience, a 1980’s-Fringe-style adaptation that now looks every year of its age, and that often sacrifices narrative strength and contextual clarity for a series of stagey gestures and stylised set-pieces that look good, but soon become downright irritating.

Amanda Gordon, as Nana, gives a brave performance, hampered only by a reddish wig that makes her look more ridiculous than irresistible; she is not afraid to tread the borderlands where the gorgeous and seductive suddenly shades uinto the shrill and ugly.  The point about the story of Nana, though, is that it only matters if we understand the decay for which it provides a metaphor; Durnin’s production and Wymark’s version mention that decay, but never make us feel the stench of it, as the soil in which Nana’s character grows, and from which she draws her power.

The politics of nakedness also features strongly, of course, in the smash-hit show Calendar Girls, now at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh for a two-week run.   For if Nana could make a royal living in 19th century Paris by taking her clothes off, then a group of Yorkshire Women’s Institute members discovered to their shock, back in 1999, that they could raise half a million pounds for charity by doing the same thing, in the famous calendar that showed middle-aged WI members going about their traditional activities wearing nothing but a string of pearls, and a  strategically placed cake or jam-pot.

Tim Firth’s two-and-a-half-hour stage version works reasonably well, as a slightly over-long reprise of the famous film script.  The second half  dwindles into a series of unnecessary monologues, and a cloyingly sentimental ending.  But with Elaine C. Smith and Julia Hills in the key roles of ebullient Chris and her friend Annie, whose sad bereavement triggers the fund-raising project, the show makes a good stab at exposing the temptations of media fame, and the fine line between good, clean sensual fun, and sheer exploitation of female flesh – and strange cultural hangups about older women – for financial gain.

The most interesting thing about Calendar Girls, though, is the reaction of the audience, who roar and cheer every stereotype-busting speech tha characters make – and every piece of clothing discarded – as if they were real people performing on some television reality show.  This is an odd reaction to theatre, as if the idea of fiction had finally died on its feet, to be replaced by a culture of non-stop real-life performance and instant celebrity that  has no boundaries, and therefore no meaning, beyond itself.

All of which only serves to emphasise the value of a show like Linda McLean’s Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime play The Uncertainty Files, which takes the raw material of real lives, and visibly shapes it into something meaningful.  Based on the same project that inspired her recent Traverse breakfast show This Is Water, The Uncertainty Files features three actors, at simple desk tables, playing a range of New Yorkers who talk in monologue about uncertainty in their lives.  The theme, in this play, is uncertainty in family and romantic relationships.  And although the piece is short, and ends with a disconcerting abruptness, there’s something about the integrity of the short monologues, and the shaping of the sequence, that generates a quite stunning series of performances from the three actors, Steven Duffy, Lesley Hart and Helen Mallon.  Charlotte Gwinner’s production has a severe and brilliant quiet choreography, controlled down to the minutest gesture; and the performances are rivetting, mature, eloquent, beautiful, and not only real, but true.

Nana in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 13 October.  Calendar Girls at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until 25 September.  The Uncertainty Files at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 5-9 October.

ENDS ENDS

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