Oedipus & Hands Across the Sea

Apr 28 2018 | By More

★★★★☆   Double Dose

Assembly Roxy: Wed 25 – Sat 28 April 2018
Review by Thom Dibdin

Congratulations to which ever member of the Edinburgh Makars thought of staging Sophocles’ bloody Oedipus in a seemingly incongruous double bill with a Noel Coward one-act farce. Truth is, the incongruity works.

It is a nervy kind of marriage though, and it is certainly not one which you would expect to succeed. However the comedy Coward’s Hands Across the Sea is played with such drive that it easily makes up for Oedipus’s darkness, while ensuring that there is more than a little of the dark side to Coward’s precisely targeted take down of the English upper classes, caught up in the navel fluff of their self obsession.

Harry Joll (Oedipus)with Vikki Chandler and Ailie Henderson. Pic: Martin Burnell

First up is Oedipus with director and adaptor Tom Brown pitching straight into the market square of Thebes, from where the general population – a six strong chorus spread out among the audience in this performance in the round – call upon Oedipus, their King of 22 years, to fight the plague which is afflicting their city.

This is very well staged, if a little hesitant at times. The chorus adds an underlying murmur of approval or dissent to the politicking of their rulers, priests and soothsayers, working in much the same way that a music soundtrack might do, emphasise the emotional elements of the performance.

Brown has made a remarkably good fist of his updating of Sophocles. The power of the Greek myths lies in the fundamental issues on which they are built, allowing them to be made relevant in what ever time they are presented. But that means they have to be clear – and Brown is certainly that.

He also handles a large, 14 strong cast very well, using their various accents and origins to accentuate the melting pot that the city state is.

angular physicality

Harry Joll gives a great account of Oedipus. He has an angular physicality to him, creating a sense of the impetuous ruler, quick to condemn and ready to carry out a deadly threat. It’s nicely at odds with Mike Appleby as his brother-in-law Creon, happy to have the power invested in Oedipus’s right-hand man, and even more happy not to have the ultimate responsibility of king.

The chorus for Oedipus. Pic: Martin Burnell

Morag Dawson invests Jocasta, Oedipus’s queen, with a great strength and understanding. She makes sure that the dynamic of their relationship is clear from the start, and even more so when it all starts to unwind with the realisations that the prophesies of the oracle are coming true.

As an examination of power being held to account and of ill-thought through retorts from those who have made decisions despite their consequences, this all feels remarkably prescient in a week when we have come to realise the enormity of the Windrush scandal and the culpability of the UK government in it.

Director John Scott Moncrieff has gone old-school for Hands Across the Sea. The set, still in the round, focusses on a chaise longue centre stage and a mouthwateringly stocked cocktail cabinet. It hints perfectly at the public room of someone rich enough to be careless about their decadence.

This, it turns out, is the domain of Commander Peter Gilpin, RN and his wife, Lady Maureen, known as Piggy. RN he might be, but domestically she is the social driving force while he plods stoically in her wake.


Piggy has a tendency for round the world cruises, it would seem, during which she descends on colonial-types, reciprocating their hospitality with invitations to visit when they are in London. And it is the confusion of two such invitations which drives the comedy here.

Beatrice Cant, Anne Trotter, Carol Davidson and Mike Appleby. Pic Martin Burnell

Carol Davidson plays Piggy with a superb combination of effervescence and superiority against Derek Melon’s knowing exasperation. She breezes about, issuing orders, jumping to conclusions and calling up a pantheon of friends on the phone, to come and help her with a visit from the Rawlingsons she had totally forgotten about.

Except it isn’t the Rawlingsons who turn up, but the Wadhursts. And while the Commander and his chum go off for a private chinwag, a clerk appears with the designs for his latest yacht. And then Piggy’s braying young chums Clare and Bogey show up to help her with the entertaining.

Pace is all here and the company have it in spades. Emma Needs and Mike Appleby as Clare and Bogey rattling along in sync with their hostess as she engages in a succession of phone calls.

It’s not all speed, though. Anne Trotter and Andrew Hawdon are all careful bird-like attitude as the Wadhursts, plied with cocktails but going largely unnoticed in the mele. While Beatrice Cant is particularly attentive to detail as the plan-bearing Miss Burnham who sits ignored in the centre of it all, the conversations washing over her and never engaging with her.

diamond sharp script

We can laugh heartily along with these idle rich because they are not played as being inherently cruel or nasty – they are just completely oblivious to anything outside their own orbit. The company play it completely straight allowing Coward’s diamond sharp script to build up the laughs until they burst out into guffaws.

The moment when Piggy realises that she has no idea who the Wadhursts are, or where they are from, is one of pure joy. Only surpassed by her attempts to find out without revealing the truth. And some brilliantly incongruous lines from the Commander who, when interacting with his wife, just opens his mouth and hopes that something sensible falls out. Sometimes it does, sometimes not.

While Coward was making private jokes at his own friend’s expense – the Gilpins are allegedly based on Lord Luis Mountbatten and his wife – there is still bite to the satire, over 80 years on.

Immersed as you are in the action it feels that, while the world has moved on, the sheer arrogance on display here – and careless obliviousness of a whole class to the lot of anyone below them – has endured.

Running time Two hours and 35 minutes (including one interval)
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU
Wednesday 25 – Saturday 28 April 2018
Evenings: 7.30pm.
Tickets and details: www.assemblyroxy.com.

Makars website: www.edinburghmakars.com
Facebook: @edinburghmakars.

Mike Appleby, Chester Parker, Anne Trotter, Carol Davidson, Emma Needs and Derek Melon. Pic: Martin Burnell.jpg



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