JOYCE MCMILLAN on TRACKS OF THE WINTER BEAR at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 12.12.15
4 stars ****
GENTLE SNOW IS FALLING, in this latest Christmas show at the Traverse; but not everyone is dressed for the weather, as we enter a world that’s both magical and brutal, and full of down-to-earth comic realism. Tracks Of The Winter Bear is a double bill of new one-hour plays by leading Scottish playwrights Sptehpen Greenhorn and Rona Munro, separate but deeply intertwined, in theme, imagery and even setting. And like all the Christmas productions Orla O’Loughlin has staged since she became artistic director of the Traverse, this is a show with a strong local twist, full of familiar, streetwise Edinburgh voices.
So in Act 1 – written by Stephen Greenhorn and directed by Zinnie Harris – the play begins at the top of Arthur’s Seat, where Shula is waiting for the first flakes of snow, while Avril circles round her, oddly sunlit in a sleeveless summer dress; it takes a few minutes for us fully to recognise that Avril is gone, her presence a ghostly one.
After that, though, Greenhorn’s script takes us on a powerful, winding flashbck journey through Shula and Avril’s secret love story, perhaps a little flat and over-written around the middle, but illuminated by a fierce central performance from Deborah Arnott as Shula, rough-edged, passionate, and on the brink of dire poverty; but transfigured by love, and faced with the ultimate question of whether she has the strength to walk on alone, without even the closure of being able to say goodbye.
And then, in Rona Munro’s Act 2, we see a similar drift of snow begin to settle on Bear – a mangy female polar bear just escaped from a shabby Highland “winter wonderland” – and on Jackie, inappropriately dressed in an acrylic Mrs. Santa Claus outfit with high-heeled sparkly boots. Like Shula, Jackie is a middle-aged woman destined to be left alone and poor in Abbeyhill. The bear has already eaten Ian, Jackie’s Regent Bar chum, and fellow temporary worker in Santa’s grotto; and her prospects look grim, until the bear starts to form a strange bond with her, eventually running and swimming her all the way back home to Edinburgh -”Oh look! There are the bridges!”
The play that emerges is a small-scale gem of stage poetry, illuminated by two terrific performances from Caroline Deyga and Kathryn Howden, and by the characters’ shared capacity to define emotions by taste; safety, it seems, tastes of biscuits, baked by someone who loves you. Orla O’Loughlin’s production is pitch-perfect; and with austere but beautiful lighting and design by Simon Wilkinson and Kai Fischer, and a gorgeous soundscape of silence, sound and music by David Paul Jones, this Traverse winter show emerges as the most beautiful and rewarding alternative to panto in town.
Until 24 December.