The Guid Sisters, The Incredible Adventures Of See-Thru Sam

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE GUID SISTERS at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, and THE INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES OF SEE THRU SAM at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 27.9.12
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The Guid Sisters 4 stars ****
The Incredible Adventures Of See-Thru Sam 4 stars ****

THE MORE ONE IS local, the more one is universal. It sounds better in French; but it remains the single most important thing ever said about theatre by the great Quebecois playwright Michel Tremblay, whose 1965 masterpiece Les Belles-Soeurs – translated into Scots as The Guid Sisters – is now revived by the Royal Lyceum Company and the National Theatre of Scotland.

When Tremblay wrote the play, he was barely 23 years old, a Montreal student enraged by the polite, gutless “proper” French in which most Quebecois cultural expression was conducted. He wanted to give a voice to the women among whom he had grown up, the raging housewives, cleaning-women and shopgirls of Montreal’s Catholic working-class tenements; and he wanted to write in the French “joual” dialect of those streets, vivid, harsh, often blazingly obscene. Over a couple of weeks, 15 unforgettable female characters emerged to possess him, including his housewife heroine Germaine Lauzon, who has just won a million trading-stamps in a competition, and invites all her neighbours round to help stick them into books; thereby setting the scene for a ferocious evening of gossip, banter, and savage stairhead rows, interspersed with brutally honest soliloquies, and moments of wild choral poetry.

And the miracle of Les Belles-Soeurs is this: that out of this detailed memory of the lives of women in Montreal, one year in the 60’s, comes a play that speaks to audiences all over the world, wherever there has been an industrial revolution, or a working class with aspirations to material affluence. So it’s a joyful experience, two decades on, to see Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay’s legendary 1989 Scots version of the play – still set in Montreal, but expressed in fierce Scots tenement rhythms – given a full-on, ultra-vivid revival by Quebecois director Serge Denoncourt and a dazzling cast of 15 Scottish actresses, led by a magnificent Kathryn Howden as Germaine – all floating nylon housecoats and huge pink hair-rollers under a floral cap – and by an equally compelling Karen Dunbar as her sister Rose.

There’s no doubt that The Guid Sisters describes a world now slipping away from us, in the west. The war it fights against the religious bullying and disempowerment of working-class women, against the oppressive cult of “respectability”, and against the empty promises of ideal-homes materialism, has moved towards other continents and cultures. And there’s also no doubt that Serge Denoncourt’s production could do better, for all its strengths; Francis O’Connor’s big set, with its elaborate tilting ceiling, adds little to the drama, and resources might have been better spent on more rehearsal, to help focus the verbal music of a text full of raucous screaming-matches, all delivered here at almost identical pitch.

In the end, though, there’s no resisting the searing vividness of the world Tremblay creates, or the blazing energy generated by this terrific company of actors. Their story is not exactly our story, any more. Yet it speaks to family histories that still lie painfully close to the surface; and like Sharman Macdonald’s She Town at Dundee, it powerfully forbids any sentimentalising of our tenement past. So that when the women gather at the end, over the quivering wreckage of Germaine’s dreams, to sing Burns’s hymn to proud poverty A Man’s A Man For A’ That, it comes as a sharp reminder that we are still playing out the drama of mass material consumption that began in the postwar boom of the 1950’s and 60’s; and that, despite Burns’s most visionary efforts, the quest for a new and better set of values on which to build our future has still barely begun.

The emergence of the teenager as a key economic and cultural force was one of main social changes of the postwar period, faithfully reflected by Tremblay; and almost half a century on, teenagers seem, if anything, more baffled and vulnerable than ever. Johnny McKnight’s latest touring play The Incredible Adventures Of See-Thru Sam explores the plight of a teenage generation raised on stories of superhero adventure which encourage classic teen fantasies of exceptionalism and power; yet often leave young people desperately ill-equipped to cope with the hard smack of reality.

McKnight’s hero is young Sam, who imagines that he is invisible; until his parents die in a car-crash, and his plight becomes all too obvious to everyone, from teachers and thuggish school bullies to his well-meaning Uncle Herbie. The play clearly belongs to the same stable as Davey Anderson’s Fringe hit The Static, which tackles a similar theme of teenage alienation, with a similar strongly visual approach.

Here, though, the visual element of the production takes an exceptionally attractive and fluid form, as James Young’s touching and beautifully-pitched Sam makes his way through a landscape conjured up through the ever-shifting lines of animated sketches and images, created by designer Lisa Sangster and animator Jamie Macdonald. The technical skill involved in conjuring up Jamie’s sketched-in world, and co-ordinating it with the movement of the three actors, is often breathtaking. And as the show moves towards its strange and tragic end, there’s a deep sense that the medium is part of the message; a message about the fragility of the world we create for our children, and the tentative, easily-erased quality of the worlds they create for themselves, once they begin to move away from us, and strike out on their own.

The Guid Sisters at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 13 October, and the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 23-27 October. The Incredible Adventures Of See-Thru Sam at the Tron Theatre until Saturday; then at MacRobert Theatre, Stirling, 5 October; Dundee Rep, 9 October; and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 18-20 October.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

The Royal Lyceum/NTS production of The Guid Sisters features a stunning all-female ensemble; and it’s a special thrill to see among them the wonderful Karen Dunbar, writer, actress and stand-up comic, whose multiple career reaches a whole new level with her powerful performance as the heroine’s sister Rose Ouimet. Worn down by the sheer drudgery of tenement life – and sometimes bitterly cruel in her judgments on other women – Tremblay’s Rose remains an intelligent woman, the joker and entertainer of the group; and when she finally step into the spotlight to tell how it really is, in her life, the audience is briefly stunned into absolute, shocked silence.

ENDS ENDS

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