How to Disappear

Dec 9 2017 | By More

★★★☆☆     Troubling comedy

Traverse Theatre: Fri 8 – Sat 23 Dec 2017
Review by Hugh Simpson

Morna Pearson’s new play How to Disappear, which is this year’s ‘alternative’ Traverse Christmas entertainment, definitely has its heart in the right place.

Its depiction of the marginalised being oppressed by bureaucracy – and of possible redemption – is both socially aware and fitting for a seasonal entertainment. While not always entirely convincing, it has a great deal going for it.

Owen Whitelaw. Pic: Beth Chalmers

Robert has relied on others because of his refusal to leave his room ever since the day Helen Daniels died in Neighbours. Now, after his mother’s death and his father’s disappearance, he depends on his much younger sister Isla. But benefits assessor Jessica arrives, eager to determine that Robert is fit to work.

Sally Reid’s Jessica is often played for laughs, which Reid is extremely good at; she also manages to turn the apparently hard-hearted benefits assessor into a figure of some sympathy.

Kirsty Mackay, as Isla, does occasionally fall into a common habit of older performers playing those of school age, lapsing into an over-assertive shoutiness, but otherwise conveys the confusion of a troubled teenager very impressively.

Owen Whitelaw (Robert) turns in an excellent performance. It is all the more notable as making someone with clear mental health problems a broadly comic figure is fraught with obvious drawbacks, but Whitelaw manages to steer a difficult course through such obstacles with aplomb.

inventive direction

Add to this inventive direction from Garth Nicholls, Becky Minto’s ingenious set, Michael John McCarthy’s striking sound design and Kai Fischer’s arresting lighting, and this should be a production of rare impact.

Owen Whitelaw and Kirsty Mackay. Pic: Beth

It does not quite hit such heights, instead ending up as an oddly diffuse experience.

The script pulls in several directions in its portrayal of people who ‘disappear’ by falling through society’s cracks for one reason or another. That folk in genuine need are subject to benefit sanctions by government authorities (based on over-zealous target-hitting rather than medical need) is an undoubted fact. The portrayal of such situations here, however, smacks of preaching to the converted rather than being used in a genuinely dramatic way.

The setting, apparently in a working-class Moray environment, is one that is not generally encountered on a Central Belt stage. Even if this is once again played awkwardly for laughs at times, it is nevertheless refreshing. There are moments of genuine emotional force, with one scene (of self-harm) that is worthy of a ‘trigger warning’ if anything is.

intrigue and interest

Such interesting ideas are largely undermined by the twist that comes during the play. Without giving away too much, it is fair to say that it is an idea that has been used many times before in different forms. While it provides both intrigue and interest, it has definitely also been used both more inventively and more rigorously than it is here. It also tends to undermine the story that has already been set up rather than reinforcing it.

Sally Reid, Kirsty Mackay and Owen Whitelaw. Pic: :Beth Chalmers

While the first half-hour of the play is fresh and involving, the second half is decidedly attenuated in comparison. Too much that is already implicit is repeated or hammered home; this is most obviously true of a redundant final scene. Even worse, it climaxes with an ill-fitting piece of sentimentality that, like a couple of other extraneous details, only serves to give a festive overlay that is unnecessary.

By this time it has become apparent that, for all the very fine acting and staging, this is another ninety-minute straight-through piece of theatre that has a very good hour-long play hidden inside it.

Running time 1 hour 30 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED
Friday 8 – Saturday 23 December 2017
Evenings Tues-Sun at 7.30 pm, Matinees Thu 14, Sat 16, Thu 21 at 2.30 pm
Tickets and details at:


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