Traverse Theatre: Thurs 24 – Sat 26 Mar 2016
Review by Thom Dibdin
Cleverly framed and delicately staged on what could well be John and Jeanine Byrne’s most evocative and cleverly constructed set yet, there is an aching beauty to Stellar Quines’ latest production.
Playwright Rebecca Sharp has created a tiny, dew-drop pearl of a piece of theatre, one in which director Muriel Romanes has got every constituent element exactly right – but which never quite gets behind the gloss and sheen to find the seed of what it is trying to say.
Melody Grove plays Isobel who has just been left the remote Argyle home of a childhood friend who has suddenly died. She brings a studied sharpness to the role, a particularity of understanding so that she carries the weight of the intricate unfurling of abstract events with ease.
Pauline Lockhart is her friend, Yvonne, whose childhood had its own darkness with the death of her father, presumably at his own hand. Their friendship had survived Yvonne’s move into the country, just, with phone calls of great silences and visits – when Yvonne’s blackness of mood would allow it.
The walls of the house form the greater part of John Byrne’s set – friable and porous into the worlds of nature and of the past but hard against the blustering elements of the present. It is dark, almost oppressive, with birch trees crowding around and dark glistening waters lapping up to their edges as a full round, man-faced moon glows down.
immersion in the spirit world
Jeanine Byrne’s lighting is technically perfect. Constructed to allow individual areas of the house to swim into focus, or the lights of cars outside to flicker through the windows, it also works in broad swathes – to illuminate the interior walls so that what was bare before is beset with runes and symbols of a mysterious past, the edges of history and a world beyond seeping onto the stage.
As Yvonne and Isobel’s fictional relationship begins to emerge, as they both talk of their shared past and scenes from it are played out, the truth of Yvonne’s own existence also comes into focus. It is her own immersion in the spirit world, the discovery of a real book, The Dark Twin by Marion Campbell, in her father’s study and the way in which Campbell and her ideas took over her own life.
Campbell, herself, comes into the frame too, played by the stoic Alexandra Mathie who emerges from the shadows of the upper floor of the house. The realities of Campbell’s own life, her archeological discoveries among the cairns and tombs of the area, her understanding of them as doors into the past and into the other world, become an intrinsic part of the narrative, as her role as a spirit guide to Yvonne’s final years is revealed.
All of which has a fascinating, revelatory trajectory. But as it plays out, it turns into a long hour and a quarter. It is, in its involvement of the world beyond, the one which is closest to our own on Halloween – the night Yvonne took her own life – gives it all the hallmarks of a ghost story of a kind. What it lacks is a ghost story’s sense of jeopardy – that there is threat from the other world to this one.
With no sense of a tension to replace this crucial element of the play’s structure, there is not enough drive to the whole. There is no doubting its beauty, the quality of the performances or the gentle appeal of the imagery, but their whole lacks the kind of focus which could make it great theatre as well.
Which means that the only real tragedy is that this tiny dew-drop pearl of a story has such a brief outing at this point, with just two remaining performances. That it must return is obvious, but it is equally obvious that some subtle reworking is still needed for its next outing.
Running time 1 hour 15 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED
Thursday 24 – Saturday 26 March 2016
Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinee Sat 26: 2.45pm.
Tickets and details: http://www.traverse.co.uk/
Stellar Quines website: http://www.stellarquines.com