JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE DEVIL MASTERS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 13.12.14.
3 stars ***
THERE’S ALWAYS fun to be had, at the Traverse, from plays that dramatise Edinburgh’s famous status as a divided city, and roll out a few well-loved stereotypes in the process. Ian Finlay Macleod’s The Devil Masters – playing until Christmas Eve, as a welcome alternative to the panto circuit – is not the most distinguished Edinburgh play ever seen at the Traverse; it’s not Trainspotting, nor David Greig’s The Architect, nor even David Anderson Q.C, the Traverse’s famous 1980’s effort to examine allegations of sexual scandal in the upper echelons of the Scottish legal system. Yet for those in an indulgent pre-Christmas mood, it offers plenty of laughs, and just a little food for thought; although audiences may well totter out into the night, after a brief hour and 40 minutes including interval, wondering whether they’ve seen a comedy, a tragedy, or a very bad melodrama.
The action takes place in the drawing room of the beautiful New Town flat inhabited by the Leishmans, a wealthy pair of middle-aged advocates who have no children, dote on their dog Max, and are about to spend Christmas Eve drinking the odd Calvados and exchanging their presents, mostly Max-related. The spacious room is beautifully realised on the big Traverse stage, down to the last twinkingling light on the tree; John Bett and Barbara Rafferty are in fine form as the Leishmans, Cameron and Lara. And when Keith Fleming enters in jeans and woolly hat, as a delivery-man turned dog-kidnapper and thief, the scene seems set for some darkly insightful social comedy.
And up to a point, that is what ensues, as Lara’s punitive, violent streak comes to the fore, and the days betweesn Christmas and New Year pass in an ugly and increasingly destructive power-struggle between the Leishmans, John, and his unseen friends, an unseen pack of dog-like urban marauders who completely trash the flat between scenes. The play’s problem, in the end, lies in some confusion of tone – Danny Krass’s music signals the occasional slide towrds near-hallucinatory violence, but seems uncomfortable with the task – and a near-complete failure of focus; it’s about humans as animals, about the fierce reactionary views of the Edinburgh establishment, about sad wealthy couples who use dogs as child-substitutes, about the violence that underpins society and its laws, and – most debatably – about the idea that you can take the girl out of Glasgow, but you can’t really take Glasgow out of the girl. Keith Fleming turns in a finely-nuanced performance as John, whose story turns out to be far more complex than the stereotype suggests, and John Bett and Barbara Rafferty bat on gamely to the end. It’s never quite, clear, though, just how serious this play is about the caricature of Edinburgh upper-middle-class manners it presents. You could take it as a joke, or as a frighteningly dark political allegory; but it needs to clarify its mood and sharpen its thinking, if it’s ever to achieve its full dramatic impact.