Nov 9 2023 | By More

★★★★☆      Well observed

Assembly Roxy: Wed 8 – Sat 11 Nov 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

The UK premiere of Walt McGough’s Chalk from the Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group, upstairs at the Assembly Roxy, lacks a little in apocalyptic intensity – but convinces in its evocation of human relationships.

This is a dystopian two-hander where Maggie (Esther Gilvray) is one of the few survivors of the end of the world as we know it, after invading aliens have killed the world’s population. Sitting in a protective circle of chalk in an outhouse with a radio, Pop Tarts, knitting and a boom of spells, Maggie is confronted by the return of her daughter Cora (Rosella Elphinstone), who left to fetch food after a fight.

Rosella Elphinstone and Esther Gilvray in Chalk. Pic: Kate Stephenson.

It is not much of a spoiler (as it is established in the first five minutes) to say that Cora has been possessed by one of the aliens – although things might not be so straightforward.

Some of those styles looked down on in Sunday supplement fiction reviews as ‘genre’ have long been embraced on stage, such as crime or romance. Science fiction, however (much like horror) is still something established theatre tends to shy away from.

established SF tropes

One result of this is that, when the genre is explored, the plots are often derivative of stories in other media. Alien invasion stories have a long history, of course, and the idea of creatures feasting on memories is not exactly new. While the play is clearly aware that it is using established SF tropes, it spends far more time setting up and explaining the situation than is necessary.

Like so many plays that just make it past the hour mark (which often seems to be a qualification for a full evening’s entertainment) it could easily lose a good ten or fifteen minutes from its running time.

Rosella Elphinstone in Chalk. Pic: Kate Stephenson.

In a truncated form, no-one would be surprised to see something like this as a student-mounted Fringe production or even a Play, Pie and Pint offering – although either of those would surely offer more laughs than the occasional limp humour on display here.

Of course, like all good SF, this is not really about bug-eyed monsters at all. It is at heart a sharply observed portrait of a parent-child relationship, full of resentment, misunderstanding and residual affection. The ruminations on memory and faith are there in service of this domestic depiction, and much of the dialogue hits home.

first-rate performances

This element of the production is certainly done justice by the first-rate performances. Gilvray’s Maggie is by turns silent, angry and forgiving, and is played with an understated matter-of-factness that has believability and genuine heart.

Elphinstone gives Cora anger, petulance and a striving for independence while still craving approval. This is similarly easy to believe, and the more alien presence is also portrayed successfully.

Esther Gilvray in Chalk. Pic: Kate Stephenson.

That the relationship between the two is so convincing speaks highly of both, and of Hannah Bradley Croall’s direction, which is sympathetic, well paced and draws out nuanced performances. Credit, too for using the strengths of the cast, with Elphinstone providing some suitably otherworldly gymnastics.

Richard Spiers and Chris Allan’s sturdy set, Elissa Webb and Jacob Henney’s spooky lighting and Dug Campbell’s sound design help to create an atmosphere that is effectively claustrophobic. Charlotte ter Heide’s costumes are similarly well judged.

The mother-daughter relationship aside, the rest of it does not quite ring true. Partly because we’ve seen this all before and there is little real feeling of jeopardy; partly because the generic, American small-town setting of so many alien possession stories does not quite translate to this side of the Atlantic; partly because, what with the pandemic and wars, our own times seem more dystopian than the weirdly non-apocalyptic apocalypse on show here.

However, the direction and performances here give this production genuine momentum.

Running time: One hour and 5 minutes (no interval)
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU
Wednesday 8 – Saturday 11 November 2023
Daily at 7.30 pm
Details and tickets: Book here.

Rosella Elphinstone and Esther Gilvray in Chalk. Pic: Kate Stephenson.


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