JOYCE MCMILLAN on PESTS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, NINE LIVES at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and ROCK OF AGES at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 24.5.14.
Pests 4 stars ****
Nine Lives 4 stars ****
Rock Of Ages 3 stars ***
ON THE STAGE of Traverse 2, old burst mattresses are piled in a sprawling, towering heap, in a room sketched only in rough outline. Somewhere in the middle of the heap sits Pink, all bleached-blond streaks and pink tracky-top, queen of a domestic bolt-hole apparently financed by as-and-when prostitution and drug-dealing; at the door stands her sister Rolly, just released from prison, eight months pregnant, and – to all outward appearances – a much more vulnerable character.
This is the powerful opening image of Vivienne Franzmann’s searing new Royal Court play Pests, co-produced by the Royal Exchange, and the Clean Break company which works with women ex-prisoners; and if the visual imagery is striking, it’s more than matched by a text written in a strange and brilliant imagined tongue, a kind of lurid post-modern estuary that is part private sibling language, part poetic response to a fractured and failing society, complete with lost fragments of English literature and Wizard-of-Oz fantasy. It’s a linguistic technique not quite as original now as it was back in 1996, when Enda Walsh first unleashed his astonishing Disco Pigs. Yet Franzmann’s 95-minute play is brilliantly sustained, intense, troubling, sometimes beautiful; and it features two magnificent performances – from Sinead Matthews and Ellie Kendrick – that absolutely demand to be seen, before the show heads south again tomorrow.
And as if to confirm the huge current strength of writing and acting in England, this week’s Play, Pie And Pint show, co-produced with West Yorkshire Playhouse, also features a blazing new drama about people on the margins of a failing society. Zodwa Nyoni’s Nine Lives tells the story of Ishmael, a Zimbabwean asylum-seeker who has fled to Britain because he is gay, one of millions of victims of the new wave of extreme homophobia sweeping some African countries. In a fine 50-minute monologue, delivered with huge skill and feeling by Lladel Bryant, we watch Ishmael struggle with Britain’s intrusive and hostile immigration system, catch a brief glimpse of sexual freedom, and form a fragile but hopeful friendship with a young single mum he meets in the park; Nyoni’s interweaving of naturalism and poetry is superb, and lifts this show far beyond documentary, into unforgettable solo drama about one of the key experiences of our time.
If you are in the mood for a bit of cheery, uplifting showbiz nonsense, though, then you could do worse than head along to the Playhouse, where the Los-Angeles-set Eighties rock tribute musical Rock Of Ages has two final performances today. The characters are a bunch of cutesy stereotypes, the story grows sillier and more self-conscious by the minute, and even the music is undistinguished; a rousing version of Europe’s The Final Countdown is about as good as it gets. Yet the onstage band is terrific, the mood is irresistibly can-do and upbeat; and the central image of a bunch of chaotic Sunset Strip rockers defending their venue from demolition still has powerful resonances today, both in Edinburgh, and beyond.