Lovesong, Born To Run, Divided City

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LOVESONG at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, BORN TO RUN at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and DIVIDED CITY at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 9.2.12
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Lovesong  4 stars ****
Born To Run  4 stars ****
Divided City   4 stars ****

THERE’S SOMETHING about the fact of death that seems peculiarly outrageous to people born in the west, over the last half-century or so.  It’s as if, during the long postwar boom, we were supposed to have vanquished death itself, along with poverty, disease and ignorance; and had some kind of right to remain forever young, beautiful, active and alive.

Yet it was always a myth, of course; and for the last couple of decades, writers have gradually been re-accommodating themselves to the idea of death, although still often in a tone of indignation that would have baffled earlier and more stoical generations.  Abi Morgan’s 2011 play Lovesong – directed  by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly, who also co-created the National Theatre of Scotland’s global hit Black Watch –  is a distinguished and beautiful contribution to this 21st century literature of death; and one which, like Frantic Assembly’s other work, uses movement in a way that delights and moves audiences, by completely distinguishing the live theatre experience from more naturalistic forms of drama.  

The idea behind the play is simple; written for four actors, it shows the same childless couple, Bill and Maggie, at the beginning of their 50-year life together, back in the 1960’s, and at the end of it, in the present day.  Past and present intertwine in a poignant play of memory, as the elderly couple are haunted or interrupted by their younger selves; Maggie, we gather, is terminally ill, and has decided to end her own life, at a time of her own choosing.

It’s debatable whether Lovesong, as a text, has much to add to the sum of human wisdom about mortality; it’s almost as if Morgan had been commissioned to write a play about voluntary euthanasia, but had actually found herself more interested in the tragedy – or not – of the couple’s long, unwilling childlessness.

What this beautiful 90-minute show has in glorious quantities, though, is skill and richness in theatrical presentation; in the poetry of Morgan’s text, in the powerful use of video and sound, and above all in Sian Phillips’s stunning central performance as Maggie, beautifully supported by Sam Cox as Bill, Leanne Rowe as Maggie’s younger self, and Edward Bennett as young Bill.   The use of movement sequences to represent the interweaving of past and present is a little self-conscious but invariably powerful, as older selves twine around and re-emerge young again; there is one utterly inspired solo moment when Phillips slips a pair of gorgeous high-heeled gold shoes on to her still-wonderful legs, but then finds she cannot walk in them.  And as the play moves to a close, we may not feel much wiser about the meaning of it all; but there is – above all in Phillips’s memorable performance – a profound, earthy feeling of companionship in facing the mystery of our tangled lives, and of our inevitable end.

The heroine of Gary McNair’s new monologue Born To Run – this week’s lunchtime Play, Pie and Pint show at Oran Mor – has also had a brush with mortality, and is struggling to deal with it.  Jane is in her twenties, with a partner and young son, when she is diagnosed with severe epilepsy; but she discovers, through the internet, that some sufferers can literally outrun this condition, if they set off in their trainers and sweatshirts as soon as they feel a possible attack coming on.

When we meet Jane, a few years on, she is driving herself through the San Antonio ultra-marathon, a 110-mile race through the Texan desert; and for 50 minutes, the astonishing writer and performer Molly Taylor runs on a machine, on the Oran Mor stage, while leading us through the story of Jane’s inner turmoil, as she tries to make a major decision about her future. 

McNair’s script – like Abi Morgan’s – struggles to do much more than point out what is obvious, about one of the extremes of human experience.  Once again, though, the show is illuminated by a brilliantly charismatic, brave and earthy performance, as Taylor – one of the rising stars of theatre in Scotland – shows us a woman at the limit of human effort, facing the truth that it might now be braver to stop running, and confront the reality of her life.

For a truly uplifting combination of gritty reality and youthful optimism, though, the finest show around this week was the Citizens’ Theatre and Glasgow City Council’s powerful two-act musical Divided City, revived on the main stage of the Citizens’ after a successful run in 2011.   Featuring a cast of almost forty teenagers from schools across Glasgow – plus an eleven-piece onstage band – Divided City is based on the book by Theresa Breslin, and tells the story of two boys, Joe and Graham,  from opposite sides of the sectarian divide, who meet in training for a Glasgow City youth football team, and become friends as Graham struggles to deal with the consequences after he witnesses the racist knifing of a young asylum-seeker. 

The result is a show that radiates a fierce teenge energy, as if someone had taken the mouthy charm of an episode of The Inbetweeners, and given if it a sharp , passionate injection of moral purpose, and sheer Glaswegian love of place.  The action is superbly choreographed by directors Guy Hollands and Elly Goodman, to a score by Claire Mackenzie that produces some breathtaking set-pieces – notably at a big Old Firm match – and also some stunning moments of lyricism.  And there are terrific performances, too; not only from Navin Chahal as the asylum-seeker Kyoul, and Tiree MacDonald as his girlfriend, but from the four boys who play Joe and Graham during the show, and from an entire cast who seem completely at one with the subject – which is the Dear Green Place itself, and their searing, demanding hope that it can find a better future.

Lovesong at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, and Born To Run at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both until Saturday.  Divided City run  completed.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

At 78, the wonderful Sian Phillips radiates star quality – and a bold delight in new challenges – as Maggie in Lovesong, a woman facing the end of her life, in a show which uses dance, music and video, as well as drama, to create a powerful and beautiful piece of theatre about love, memory and regret.

ENDS ENDS    
                                 

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