PPP: The Spark

Apr 5 2023 | By More

★★★★☆   Fiery

Traverse: Tue 4 – Sat 8 Apr 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

The Spark by Kathy McKean, the final offering in the current Traverse run of Oran Mor’s Play, Pie and a Pint, is a clever and compelling piece of theatre.

Robin (Nicole Cooper), a minister in the Scottish government recently moved from Health to Transport, finds herself marginalised by colleagues, not least unconscionably overconfident speechwriter James (Johnny Panchaud). Suffering from perimenopausal symptoms, Robin seems to be further dismissed by overworked doctor Maggie (Beth Marshall), and her anger begins to manifest itself externally in unexpected ways.

Beth Marshall and Nicole Cooper. Pic Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

It is a tonic to see the unforgivably rare representation on stage of something that affects such a huge proportion of the population – as the play boldly points out, ‘the wrong half of the population’ to be taken more seriously by the medical establishment. Such a vital subject would, of course, count for little if it were not skilfully dramatised, which is undoubtedly the case here.

Verisimilitude and episodes of magic realism are intertwined, and equally well portrayed, in a script that deals with other manifestations of sexism as well as other political concerns. Cooper’s central performance is a magnetic one, fuelled by righteous anger and with a realistic human core.


Panchaud and Marshall are also impressive, dealing well with the characters being deliberately a little more stereotyped, acting as they do largely as a background for Cooper’s character. There is even a hint that they might partly be projections of her own concerns.

It is to the play’s great credit that none of this is spelled out; much is left to the audience to work out, including the ending. Unlike too many other plays which mix such realistic and hyper-realistic elements, it never settles for easy and unsatisfactory explanations.

Nicole Cooper and Johnny Panchaud. Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Gordon Barr’s sensitive and imaginative direction helps greatly with this, suggesting a myriad of possibilities. Gemma Patchett and Jonny Scott’s set, resembling an exploded office furniture store, chimes wittily and pleasingly with the rest of the productions’ concerns; Ross Kirkland’s lighting and Ross Nurney’s sound are similarly sympathetic.

Perhaps there is not a great deal to anchor the story firmly at Holyrood; some will no doubt quibble at the devolved administration being portrayed as a hotbed of patriarchy.

overweening pride

However, it is very difficult for any such institution to escape the faults of its Westminster progenitor. Just as the supposedly non-confrontational layout has failed to eliminate the sixth-form debating club atmosphere, with its yah-boo-sucks points-scoring, so the number of women in top roles has never erased the inevitable feel of the boys’ club. That is represented here by the overweening pride of the all-too-recognisably entitled, mansplaining James, given suitably wretched life by Panchaud.

This is one of those Play, Pie and Pint efforts that seems exactly the right length. It sticks around enough to explore its premise and to intrigue, and it is difficult to see what it could gain from being any longer. Like the best entertainment, it leaves you eager for more, and as such is a fitting end to this impressive PPP season.

Running time 50 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED
Tuesday 4 – Saturday 8 April 2023
Daily at 1.00 pm
Details and tickets: Book here.

Beth Marshall and Nicole Cooper with Johnny Panchaud. Pic Tommy Ga-Ken Wan


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