For Better, For Worse

Aug 22 2023 | By More

★★★☆☆     Truthful

C aquila (Venue 21): Sun 13 – Sun 27 Aug 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

For Better, For Worse from PenPal Productions at C aquila is largely successful at combining a family comedy with the wider world, in a way that many have found too difficult to pull off in the past.

The hearts sinks a little at the thought of another play revolving around a family at the time of the 2014 referendum. There were plenty at the time (and since) from grassroots companies that never really worked either as a domestic drama or a political discussion. Some insisted they ‘weren’t really about the referendum’ when they clearly were, and ended up appearing mealy-mouthed; others were pieces of bald agitprop that satisfied neither the committed nor doubters.

Mark O’Neill, Erin Elkin and Sheila Duncan. Pic: PenPal Theatre

Jill Franklin’s script, however, is something different, as the referendum is definitely used more as a background to the family conflict. This is sparked off when – on her first birthday since her husband died – Diane (Sheila Duncan) informs her unimpressed children that she is thinking about dating again.

Admittedly, brother and sister Mark (Mark O’Neill) and Natalie (Erin Elkin) are presented rather artificially as being on opposite sides in the vote, but their political exchanges are little more than shouting matches. It is the family dynamic that is the focus, and presented partly as a metaphor for the polarised nature of political debate that manages to say more than many examinations of ‘issues’ do.

Natalie has her own reasons for moving away from her (pro-independence) father’s stance; Mark sees his late parent through rose-tinted glasses, but comes to realise that things may not have been as wonderful as he has hitherto believed.

calm assurance

There is considerable subtlety and nuance in a production directed with calm assurance by Emma Lynne Harley. Duncan’s portrayal of Diane has a spark and a vulnerability that are extremely compelling. Similarly, O’Neill and Elkin portray a believable sibling relationship, with both characters striving to assert their individuality while simultaneously reverting to childhood bickering.

Erin Elkin, Mark O’Neill and Sheila Duncan, Pic: PenPal Theatre

The structure of the play tends to the episodic at times, but is basically sound. The dialogue has an authentic ring and a considerable degree of humour. Much of this comedy is sharp, but occasionally it is decidedly lazy – a remark about not dating a man who ‘likes musicals’ is old-fashioned enough the first time, let alone the third time it appears.

However, once it establishes the situation and characters, the play does not do a great deal with them. While the revelations about the past are carefully drip-fed, it cannot help seeming as if it starts going round in circles to a degree, coming to resemble an episode of a soap rather than a standalone drama..

However, there is enough in this to entertain and convince. It may not alter the view that there should be a moratorium on referendum-set plays until someone has something shatteringly new to add, but taken on its own terms it is very pleasing.

Running time: 55 minutes (no interval)
C aquila (Temple), Roman Eagle Lodge, 2 Johnston Terrace, EH1 2PW (Venue 21)
Sunday 13 – Sunday 27 August 2023
Daily at 1.45 pm
Tickets and details: Book here.

PenPals Theatre links

Twitter: @PenPalsTheatre

Instagram: @penpalproductions

Facebook: @PenPalsTheatre

Erin Elkin and Sheila Duncan. Pic: PenPal Theatre


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