Cheshire Cats

Aug 12 2015 | By More

★★★★★    Great Big Grins

Saughtonhall United Reformed Church (Venue 273): Mon 10 – Sat 15 Aug 2015

Life-affirming and hugely funny, Cheshire Cats at Saughtonhall United Reformed Church is a rare treat indeed.

Gail Young’s tale of a team heading for the Moonwalk to raise money for breast cancer causes has been to the Fringe before. Here, however, with the permission and help of the writer, the Saughtonhall Drama Group have changed much of the setting to the Edinburgh Moonwalk, with hugely impressive results.

The cats. Photo: Sarah Howley, Saughtonhall Drama

The cats. Photo: Sarah Howley, Saughtonhall Drama

Publicity material for the show concentrates on the comic possibilities of the addition of a male member to the Cheshire Cats Moonwalk team, but in truth this is a small part of what happens.

In the end, the plot is unimportant, as it is the way the characters react to the situation that drives the piece. The play has been compared to Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls, and also has hints of writers such as John Godber and Victoria Wood, but in the end it manages to achieve its own identity.

What is noticeable is how well its recognisably Northern English atmosphere fits in with the Scottish comedy tradition, and how carefully that blend has been achieved in this version.

Maggie (the impressive Estelle Cross) and Vicky (Louise Starkey) are played with delicacy and believability. The team’s organiser Hilary (an utterly convincing Liz Swinburne), the ‘out-of-control control freak’ starts off appearing to be an annoying stereotype but, as with the other characters, depth is added as her motivations are revealed.

nails punchline after punchline

There are some extremely poignant moments, but these are more than matched by the huge number of laughs to be had. Judith Petrie displays excellent timing as Hilary’s put-upon friend Siobhan, while Gill McEvoy nails punchline after punchline as the indignant Yvonne.

Scott Kerr, as the team’s last-minute addition Andrew, is given the opportunity for some over-the-top dragged-up campery but, once again, there is more to the character than meets the eye.

In what is something of a departure for the company, the action is played out on an almost entirely bare stage, with only a few chairs, some props and judiciously used back projections to set the scene. Such minimalism is turned into a positive by John Webster, who directs with the utmost of care and a great deal of imagination.

This is exemplified by the second half, where a parade of short scenes of varying degrees of craziness could have become annoying, but instead builds expertly. Daria Renka, Murray Petrie and Keith Wilson contribute effectively in cameo roles, but the undoubted highlight of this sequence is the portrayal of two marshals by Betty Meston and Morag Simpson.

They have the feel of a classic comic double act, with Simpson providing a masterclass in how to extract the maximum comedy from a character, helped greatly by Meston as her deadpan foil.

judged to perfection

This sequence exemplifies the way that the Edinburgh setting has not simply been bolted on, but has been thought through with proper attention and has enabled the company to make the play their own. The whole production seems to have been built from the bottom up, and on the surest of foundations.

Sure, there is the odd fluff and glitch, and the delivery of some difficult monologues in verse could be tightened up a little, but this is all irrelevant. From the low-level, perfectly judged involvement of the audience to a team onstage and backstage who are all pulling their weight, everything is judged to perfection. This is a true community production, but one that is extremely welcoming to outsiders.

And yet it is much more than the sum of its parts. The play undeniably has a clever mix of humour and melancholy that makes it thought-provoking and uplifting without appearing meretricious or sentimental. But Saughtonhall Drama Group, in transporting it to Edinburgh and making it work, have created something out of the ordinary.

Rooted in something real, tangible and local, the production achieves something intangible and universal. This is not just what local theatre should be all about, it is what all theatre should be all about.

Running time 2 hours 15 minutes including interval
Saughtonhall United Reformed Church (Venue 273), 87 Saughtonhall Drive, EH12 5TR 
Monday 10 – Saturday 15 August 2015
Daily at 7.30 pm; Saturday matinee at 2.30 pm
Book tickets on the EdFringe website:
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