JOYCE MCMILLAN on THEM! at the Tramway, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 1.7.19.

4 stars ****

WHAT DO WE do when the familiar narratives of our lives are disrupted, and thrown all over the shop? That’s the question at the centre of Pamela Carter and Stewart Laing’s remarkable show-cum-installation Them!, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland at the Tramway; and to make its point, it uses two all-too-familiar narrative structures, smashing them both across an invisible boundary, into the unknown.

The first narrative belongs to the 1954 Hollywood science-fiction B movie Them!, a classic cold-war drama about the eventual destruction of a breed of giant ants unleashed by the nuclear age; the second belongs to a modern Oprah-style chat-show based on uplifting tales of personal trauma and transformation, chaired live by the fabulous Kiruna Stamell. Her first guest is the director, Stewart Laing, who is making a film inspired by Them!, but refuses Kiruna’s hopeful questions about the mid-life crisis she thinks must have inspired the project; he leaves, to be replaced by a fictional and much more amenable version of himself, suavely played by Ross Mann.

This new director’s narrative is disrupted in turn, though, by Zachary Hing as the Prof; then by a group of five young AI robots claiming to represent the future; and finally by a figure called Toni (an impressive Rosina Bonsu) who takes over the chat-show host’s chair. All of this is accompanied by music from a terrific five-piece band led by composer-performer Carla Easton, and by film clips from both version of Them!; and it’s no surprise at all when Toni finally invites us to leave the theatre-studio, and move on into a night-club of noisy transformation, followed by an exhibition of the complex communal lives of leaf-cutter ants, and a tot of whisky.

All of which sounds crazy enough; but also brilliantly makes its point that whatever the future of humanity holds, our old ways of trying to tidy up our experience are going to be of little use to us. The “Them!” experience is delivered with astonishing flair and class throughout, with Kiruna Stamell blazing brilliantly as the chat-show host, Pamela Carter writing like an angel, and every element of the show superbly co-ordinated by Stewart Laing and his team. And if it ends with a shared moment of respect for the rich and complex collective lives of ant colonies, that makes plenty of sense, in an age when our relationship with other species must change or die; as does the suggestion that in order to get through any of it, we will need a stiff drink, and a strong measure of conviviality, discovered anew.

Until 6 July.


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