Apr 4 2017 | By More

★★★★☆  Raw

Studio @ Festival Theatre: Fri 31 March/Sat 1 April 2017
Review by Thom Dibdin

Hilarious and chilling by turns, Heroine – Mary Jane Wells’ one-woman show at the Studio of Festival Theatre – tells a compelling story while digging deep into subjects so raw they are still taboo.

At a basic level, this is the tale of Dana Davis from the moment she was thrown out into the winter snow by her father for the audacity of having a girlfriend, through her time in the army, on active service and facing up to dire peril, both close at hand and in the field.

Mary Jane Wells in Heroine. Photo Greg Macvean

Or, to be less euphemistic, her rape. Not by an enemy, but a fellow soldier: a man who she knew and worked beside. A man who saw her leaving a gay bar and used the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule, then in power, to ensure her silence.

It’s an energised performance from Wells, under precise direction from Susan Worsfold. She knows a thing or two about pace – both in the telling and the writing – and with sound by Matt Padden and lighting by George Tarbuck, is surrounded by a technical team which has conjured great depths out of the simplest of ideas and detail.

First, however, there must be laughter. Not because there is a need to trivialise or diminish what is to come. Not even to make it bearable. But because this refuses to be tragedy – or rather because Danna Davis has refused to let it be her tragedy.

Tension, release and laugher. Wells enters in the American army fatigues that Davis wore when she joined up – as her father had before her – in the early years of this century. Patches of light turn to darkness as she passes through them until she stands front stage, eyeballing her audience, rolling up a sleeve, drawing and unsheathing a Stanley knife.

meshed fingers

Her inner arm is bare, the veins obvious, the intent clear. It is a moment so blindingly certain to end only one way, that it should properly be viewed through meshed fingers.

But before you can fully comprehend the enormity of what is about to happen, with a laugh, a sudden relaxation and a vocal dismissal of self harm, Wells has bounded free and sets out her tale with a bouncing humour and joy.

Mary Jane Wells. Pic: Greg Macvean

Even being thrown out in the snow isn’t a downer after that. Wells’ depiction of Davis’s parents is so precisely understanding that it is hard to feel anger at them – at first. Maybe later, when alienation is needed and their calls have a hollow echo, then can real anger can emerge.

This might appear to be a callous attitude to the violence inflicted on Davis. But the upshot is that Wells can then take the story into some very dark and uncomfortable places.

Balancing light and shade, she recalls life in the army: the reality of falling in love and the rough brutality between soldiers, the humour of carrying out an illicit affair and the violence of being assaulted.

Without flinching, Wells shows Davis out on active duty, under fire, having to act as a unit, to put all thought of their history to the side as she and her rapist come under lethal attack.

out to the edge

In terms of taking her audience out to the edge and showing them the blazing fires beneath, Wells does an exceptional job. How she brings them safely home again falls out a bit too pat, lacking a proper frisson of danger to add substance to the relief. Which, however, is partly down to using real life as your source material.

There is a real spontaneity to Wells’ performance, too. She has a story tell, but no axe to grind here, and the words fall out as if they were coming to her on the spot, not carefully scripted. So much so, that it hardly seems conceivable that this is, in theory, a work in progress, funded by Creative Scotland and – hopefully – set to return.

If you can’t see it now, mark it well and go and see it when you can. What appears, on the surface, to be the furthest from what you would want as the basis for an evening’s entertainment, turns out to be fascinating and gloriously entertaining – even as it bites hard.

Running time 1 hour 30 mins.
The Studio at the Festival Theatre, Potterrow, EH8 9BL
Friday 31 March/Saturday 1 April 2017.
Evenings: 7.30pm.


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  1. Heroine : All Edinburgh Theatre.com | Aug 11 2018