JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BEST OF VILLAGE PUB THEATRE at the Traverse Theatre, for The Scotsman 5.4.14.
4 stars ****
IT STARTED a couple of years ago in the back room of the Village Pub in South Fort Street, which is still its home; the formula was simple – a consortium of six writers, a handful of excellent Edinburgh-based actors, one aspiring young director, and plenty of gorgeous home-made cakes. Once a month or so, in Leith, the Village Pub Theatre presents an evening of short ten-minute plays, some written by that core group of writers, others by newcomers and guests; and sometime last year, they also spawned the idea of the tiny 140-character “twitter play”, which has now matured into fine 21st century artworks like David Greig’s online Yes No Plays.
This week, though, the Village Pub Theatre has been attempting something entirely new, in the form of a week-long residency at the Traverse Theatre. The residency is set to end tonight with a celebration party, plenty of cakes, four new short plays by writers including Morna Pearson and Sylvia Dow, and a brisk half hour of the company’s best twitter plays; but the company have spent the week – in their intimate, three-sided “Traverse Three” studio created on the stage of Traverse One – trying their hand at a series of longer one-hour plays-in-progress.
So there’s been an extended version of Louise E. Knowles’s comedy radio horror-movie Listeners Beware, daft but entertaining; and a full-length reworking of Sophie Good’s monologue End Of The Line, in which a woman dreams of being Edinburgh’s first-ever tram passenger. And on Thursday night, there was a passionate performance and discussion of Colin Bell’s play for four men, Samson, about ideas of successful masculinity, and how they relate to a hidden culture of abuse.
The undoubted gem of the week, though, was Monday’s opening play, a gorgeous surreal romantic comedy by Catherine Grosvenor called The Happest Day Of Brendan Smillie’s Life, about a vulnerable bloke called Brendan (a superb Ben Clifford) his over-protective and bullying brother (Paul Cunningham, in terrific form), and a path to true love that runs through some strange byways, until it finds its destination in lovely, ditsy wedding-planner Jenny, played by Jenny Hulse with such light-touch comic perfection that the audience could only roar their approval.
There are questions to be asked, of course, about what this emerging drama of small works, brilliant fragments and script-in-hand performance means; the aesthetic of Village Pub Theatre, steered by director Caitlin Skinner and writer and co-founder James Ley, comes close to suggesting that fully staged productions are hardly necessary any more, to enable audiences to experience the buzz of live theatre created before their eyes; the revel in the power of their own imaginations to conjure up sets, settings and action. Whatever the future holds for Caitlin Skinner and the VPT collective, though, for the moment they’re creating a brand new vortex of powerful theatrical activity in Edinburgh; everyone in the city who enjoys the raw energy of theatre should sample it, and remember to leave plenty of room for cake.
At the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, untl tonight.