Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths

May 18 2018 | By More

★★★★☆   Strange energy

Traverse Theatre: Wed 16 – Sat 19 May 2018
Review by Hugh Simpson

Reality is stretched to great effect in Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths at the Traverse to Saturday. The Tron Theatre Company’s production in association with the National Theatre of Scotland is bleakly comic and thoroughly unpredictable.

The title of Martin McCormick’s play suggests Ubu Roi. While there are hints of Jarry’s scabrous energy, the closed-off, absurdist situation is more reminiscent of Beckett or Ionesco. This is leavened with definite traces of the Scottish variety tradition, while the setting has echoes of the Unthank sequences in Lanark.

Karen Dunbar with Gerry Mulgrew. Pic: John Johnston

Such lofty comparisons are justified by almost all of what happens in a strange, often hilarious and disquieting production, which defies attempts at summary. The incomparable Karen Dunbar gives full value to some blackly comic lines, giving the housebound and apparently pregnant Ma an erratic and sinister edge. Her ability to make everyday words sound ludicrous, and ridiculous statements sound natural, is a joy to behold.

Pa, meanwhile, manages to get outside once a week to fetch the messages. This is presented as being no small feat, what with the world outside their sealed-in flat apparently being full of belching smoke, violent gangs and human-sized potholes.

Some of the couple’s bickering is familiar from endless depictions of long-established couples, and some of the reminiscences trade on well-worn Scottish nostalgia, but there is also something very odd about it. Pa’s memories of his sandy-haired youth, when he was so good-looking they put his photo in a Paisley shop window when they didn’t even live there, are given expansive life by the wonderful Gerry Mulgrew.

That the character of Neil, the young woman who has been rescued from a terrible ordeal under a car by Pa (partly due to her lovely teeth) stands up so well against two such accomplished comic performers is testament to Nalini Chetty’s excellent performance as well as McCormick’s pin-sharp, near-the-knuckle dialogue.

comic flair

Andy Arnold directs with comic flair. Charlotte Lane’s extraordinary design – a shoebox set with most of the contents of an ironmonger’s shop whitewashed and stuck to the walls – and Ross Brown’s spot-on sound design enhance matters greatly.

Karen Dunbar and Gerry Mulgrew. Pic: John Johnston

So much of this approaches genuine brilliance that it is unfortunate that a couple of things let it down. One or two moments seem born out of a juvenile desire to shock for its own sake and do not really work. Since some of the more sombre moments – such as the possible fate of the ‘little mouths’ of the title – work comparatively well, and the overall effect is so disorienting, they are not really needed.

More seriously, it all unravels at the end, for all the world as if McCormick could not think of anything good to stop on. The rest of it, however, is proof of his immense talent – a talent done justice by the performances and staging here.

Running time 1 hour 25 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED
Wednesday 16 – Saturday 19 May 2018
Daily at 7.30 pm

Information and tickets:

Gerry Mulgrew, Nalini Chetty and Karen Dunbar. Pic: John Johnston.


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