Dream Plays 7, 8 and 9 – Room 7, National Health, Skeleton Wumman

Dream Play – Skeleton Wumman
4 stars ****
Dream Play – National Health
4 stars ****
Dream Play – Room 7
3 stars ***
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

AS THE TRAVERSE’s breakfast-time Dream Play season rolls into its second week, it becomes increasingly obvious that the remit of writing scenes “from a play I’ll never write” – because of its scale, or ambition, or sheer craziness – is not one that the current generation of playwrights find easy. Most are offering early scenes from plays that they might well write; and only a few – Sabrina Mahfouz in the first group, Gerda Stevenson and Linda Radley here – are diving straight off the deep end, into uncharted seas.

Stevenson’s wonderful 25-minute theatre-poem Skeleton Wumman, featuring one actress and two on-stage musicians, is a monologue for a rickle of bones lying on the seabed, long dead, but somehow still able to think. Once, she was a disabled woman with non-working legs, living in a seaside cottage with her mother and fisherman father; but in this traditional yet futuristic tale, told in rich Scots, a big wave from the rising ocean has come and swept away their village. Now, she lies on the seabed, with only dolphins, seaweed and the odd drowned church-bell for company; until some kind of redemptive miracle begins to take hold, driven by the power of love. Pauline Knowles gives a stunning performance in this remarkable story, inspired by native American tales as well as by Scotland’s huge tradition of sea stories; and although it takes a while to exert its grip, its strange, ecstatic ending leaves the audience gasping, with the power of its poetry and storytelling.

Linda Radley’s National Health is set – like Janice Galloway’s play last weekend – in a women’s psychiatric unit; but what’s delightful about this treatment of the subject is that within minutes, her three actors are also out and about, demonstrating to us that if the three women in hospital are disturbed, then the society around them is just plain mad. A really interesting wave of sharp gestures and sudden twitches ran through the audience, for example, as Lynn Kennedy and Rosie Wyatt, both in excellent form, acted out a dialogue between an elderly man and a bank clerk whose employers have just frozen his account through their own incompetence; clearly, Radley is onto something here, with her contention that the national health is being damaged not so much by cigarettes and junk food, as by the sheer uncaring bureaucracy and corporate capture of the world we live in.

Johnny McKnight’s Room 7 also emerges as a lively show about a society that commodifies everything, as pretty young new recruit Jessie, played with spirit by Hannah Boyd, turns up for a job interview with an organisation that calls itself an IVF clinic, but turns out to have much more sinister baby-farming intentions. In the end, though, this seems like a play that’s going nowhere even over a short half hour, as Ros Sydney, playing the interviewer Vera, rolls out her increasingly chilling line in demented corporate newspeak and double-think, and two of Scotland’s finest actresses, Jeanette Foggo and Joanna Tope, loll in front of their computer screens, watching the whole scene on security camera. It’s a strong situation, well set up in the first five minutes; but dramatic development is there none, and the play ends up repeating itself, in a way that’s both deliberately nasty, and just a shade boring.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 274


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