JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE VOICE THIEF at Summerhall, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 10.11.14.
3 stars ***
IF YOU’RE looking for a company with the nerve to take theatre for older children into the dark places of the mind and heart, then the work of Catherine Wheels – based in Musselburgh, acclaimed on the international stage – is for you. Last year, artists Shona Reppe and Andy Manley, with Catherine Wheels, produced the memorable installation-show Huff, a version of The Three Little Pigs that also touched on the horror of war.
And now, in the labyrinthine basements of Summerhall, the Catherine Wheels team – led by artistic director Gill Robertson – have created a promenade show that deals with nothing less than the chill hand of oppressive patriarchal power, robbing girls and young women of their voices, their anger, their indidviduality. Co-created by Robertson with designer Karen Tennant and performer Ian Cameron, The Voice Thief is a 70-minute experience that occasionally struggles to match the strength of its central idea, as the audience are invited by a pair of spooky twin girl retainers into MIEVH, The Mackenzie Institute For The Encouragement Of Vocal Harmony.
At first, all is sweetness and light. Cameron’s Dr. Mackenzie is an endearing, singing Willie Wonka figure in a white coat and explosive wig, the walls lined with reassuring pictures of the celebrity speakers he has helped; and for rather too long – almost 35 minutes – we are led through a series of experiences that seem more like design ideas than dynamic contributions to the narrative, as we’re invited to don masks, pass through a human car-wash, lie down in a soothing pink tent, and finally settle in a lecture theatre for an explanation of the doctor’s work.
It’s at this point, though, that the story darkens, as the doctor’s lovely daughter Beatrice, beautifully played by Jenny Hulse, begins to rebel against his increasingly controlling instructions, and to lead us into her own magical cave of secretly-saved voices. The power of the metaphor in this final sequence is almost overwhelming, as Beatrice searches for the beautiful voice of her dead mother, and strives to make her escape. And if the slightly predictable text often seems to have been added as an afterthought to the rest of the drama, the central idea is magnificently realised both in Tennant’s superb design for the laboratory at the heart of Mackenzie’s darkness, and in Danny Krass’s unforgettable soundscape, which captures the full horror of oppression through a subtle symphony of half-muffled squeals and brief soaring notes, in a show that should be irrelevant to the world of 2014, but sadly still seems both timely and necessary.