JOYCE MCMILLAN on HENCEFORWARD and TRELAWNY OF THE WELLS at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and GOLDILOCKS AND THE GLASGOW FAIR at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 7.7.11
Henceforward 3 stars ****
Trelawny Of The Wells 2 stars **
Goldilocks And The Glasgow Fair 3 stars ***
THERE’S NO MENTION OF IT in the 60th Anniversary brochure. Yet little by little, I can see a theme emerging in this year’s first series of Pitlochry plays; and it is a feminist one, about men who think they can shape women as objects, to fit their own needs. The season’s flagship show, after all, is My Fair Lady, the story – based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pgymalion – of an eccentric Professor’s attempt to create a perfect lady out of a Covent Garden flower-seller. The jolly wartime farce is See How They Run, in which the comedy is triggered by the fitful attempts of actress-turned-vicar’s-wife Penelope Toop to comply with the strict demands of her new role. Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1898 play Trelawny Of The Wells is built around the tale of a young actress who returns to the stage, rather than live with the stuffy restrictions placed upon her by her fiance’s aristocratic family.
And as for Alan Ayckbourn’s 1987 tragi-comedy Henceforward, it’s difficult to read this complex, intractable play as anything other than the mea culpa of a creative, artistically-driven man who treats women as if they were automatons, and who finds himself unable to put love and family life first, even though he knows – in theory – that they are the most important things on earth.
Set in a dystopian near future, in the besieged London flat of composer Jerome Watkins, Henceforward shows a man living surrounded by the sound technology he loves – and by a fair amount of domestic squalor – in a suburban landscape ruled by gangs of feral boys and girls, who constantly throw stones at the metal shutters on Jerome’s windows. His only companion is a robot called Nan, designed for childcare, but now dedicated to ineffectual acts of housework. Meanwhile, her master obsesses over his right of access to the daughter he lost when his wife Corinna left him; and when he hatches up a plan to win her back – involving a fake scene of domestic bliss, and a fiancee played by a comely young actress from an escort agency – the scene is set for an increasingly chilling drama, in which Jerome’s inability to give and receive real human love becomes ever more obvious.
Despite a powerful and complex modernist set by Ken Harrison – with lighting and sound effects that fairly blow the mind, in some key scenes – Ken Alexander’s ambitious production never quite resolves some of the problems created in what is, by Ayckbourn’s standards, an unusually undisciplined and overwritten play. In the end, though, there’s no denying the disturbing power of this strange, surreal drama, or the sharpness of the questions it raises about art, love, and a certain subtle kind of patriarchy. And in Alan Steele as Jerome, the wonderful Shirley Darroch as Zoe, his escort-turned-robot-fiancee, and a powerful Helen Logan as two versions of Corinna, the show boasts three central performances worth applauding; even if it leaves the audience as much puzzled and troubled, as entertained.
The problem with Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawny Of The Wells, by contrast, is although it seems to be a play about a young actress rebelling against the social expectations of her time, in fact the heart of the drama lies elsewhere, in Pinero’s rejection of the artificial and sensational dramatic style of a earlier age, and in his argument with himself about the nature of theatre. John Durnin’s Pitlochry production should be, at the very least, an interesting period piece, reflecting on the theatre world of the 1860’s, and its place in Victorian society; what emerges instead, though, is a production that seems simply defeated by the constantly shifting focus of the play, and by its gradual shift from theatrical lodging-house and aristocratic drawing-room to the stage of the Pantheon Theatre.
Karen Tennant’s sets are self-consciously gloomy and awkward-looking, the costumes are deliberately hideous, and the actors often seem to have no clue what story they are trying to tell; the clown is not funny, the heroine looks uncomfortable, and the young playwright – played with some verve by Sam Pay – runs only a short gamut of emotions, from exasperated to cross. The overall effect is one of terrible tedium and shapelessess; and although it’s possible to imagine a production of this play that would seize hold of Pinero’s ideas, and rework them in ways that might mean something to a modern audience, this disappointing effort certainly isn’t it.
At Oran Mor, meanwhile, the veteran Wildcat team of David MacLennnan and David Anderson have made the bold decision to revive the tradition of the Glasgow summer panto, albeit in a 60-minute lunchtime form. The result is Goldilocks And The Glasgow Fair, a fragmented but jolly show in which the heroine – played with a terrific, tough sweetness by the glorious Cora Bissett – mercifully shows no sign of caving in to anyone’s expectations of how she should behave. The show’s problem, though, is that its story is too complex. Instead of picking one fairytale with resonances for the current political situation – any good story of poor folk triumphing over evil barons would have done – they insist, for comic purposes, on incorporating at least half a dozen, from Little Red Riding Hood to Hansel And Gretel.
The result is a show where the jokes are sometimes good but often a shade laboured and obscure, and where the political satire – through often timely – emerges in awkward bursts rather than a steady flow. There are plenty of good laughs, though, for those who like their panto with a socialist twist; and a rousing final song celebrating the power of grandparents to stand up for the next generations of weans, that has Oran Mor’s West End lunchtime audience singing its heart out, and cheering itself to the echo.
Henceforward and Trelawny Of The Wells in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 15 October. Goldilocks And The Glasgow Fair at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 23 July.