Aug 7 2023 | By More

★★★★☆     Powerful and funny

Assembly Roxy (Venue 139): Wed 2 – Wed 16 Aug 2023
Review by Allan Wilson

Salamander, by Pretty Knickers Productions at Assembly Roxy for the first two weeks of the Fringe only, takes its starting point from the unsolved murder of a sex worker on Leith’s Salamander Street in 1983.

But Salamander is not some modern true-crime podcast where the reporter spots an obvious clue that the police missed in their original, flawed investigation and identifies the killer. Indeed, the murder is scarcely mentioned after the initial archive recording reporting on the crime. Instead, this powerful and funny drama focuses on the lives of the sex workers left behind to carry on working in Leith.

Sarah Dingwall, Niamh Kinane and Mhairi McCall in Salamander. Pic Calum Ferguson

The play opens with a boisterous beauty contest where four young women are clearly proud of their lives and enjoying themselves as they are invited to introduce themselves by a sleazy compere.

Chelsea Grace brings a brittle compassion to the part of V. She is the most experienced, with two children of her own and has become the mother figure of the group, pretending she doesn’t care, but always the first to help.

Tiff, played by co-writer Mhairi McCall, is the youngest at 22, a product of the care system, with an expensive habit to feed. She is also a talented poet and a beautiful singer. Roxy, is portrayed by Niamh Kinane, as self-confident and is the group’s token lesbian. She used to work in a sauna, for which the others tease her for being posh.

a veneer of jokes and wise-cracks

Sarah Dingwall’s Candy comes across as a fragile person, hiding behind a veneer of jokes and wise-cracks that bring much-needed comedy to a frequently dark subject.

The girls come together in a church hall for a police-led project to support sex workers who are active on the streets of Leith and are joined by Police Liaison Officer, Pat, played by Claire McGarragher (who also played the compere in the opening scene).

Pat comes across as a decent person who genuinely wants to support the girls, but is limited in what she can do, and has her own problems after being left by her husband with two children to bring up. The girls are sceptical about the role of the police, wondering if they are really after drug dealers, or removing under-age girls from the streets.

Becky Niven in Salamander. Pic Calum Ferguson

The final member of the project is Becky Niven’s Joan, a middle class church worker with a surprising lack of awareness of the real lives of sex workers, even for the 1980s. For her, “sex” is what coal used to be delivered in, and a plate of freshly-baked brownies is the solution to most problems. Sadly, the brownies cannot help with her abusive husband. Though initially baffled by her, the girls gradually warm to Joan, helped by regular supplies of brownies.

The play is punctuated by occasional songs, primarily involving the amazingly talented McCall, but also excellent ensemble work, beautifully supported by guitarist Folke Wiemann. The girls are also invited to take part in a poetry competition, resulting in lots of laughs as the girls try to put what they really think of their clients into verse. In contrast, Tiff produces work of great profundity revealing the depth of the pain she feels.

expressive lighting

The writing of Mhairi McLeod and Cal Ferguson is excellent throughout, capturing the period and allowing the girls to express themselves without resorting to cliché. Lana Pheutan shows a lot of talent as director, making good use of movement and ensemble work to keep the action flowing, while there is also some very expressive lighting.

The project gradually comes to an end following the death of one of the girls and this brilliantly comical, powerful and emotional play moves into the present with Claire briefly reflecting on the case for a podcast, talking about the changes to sex work brought by the internet, and wondering if the project did any good.

Of course, the girls have the final say, personalising the Leith motto to become a rousing chorus of “WE PERSEVERE!”

Running time: One hour and 10 minutes (no interval)
Assembly Roxy (Upstairs), 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU (Venue 139)
Wednesday 2 – Wednesday 16 August 2023
Daily: 6.55pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Pretty Knickers Links

Twitter: @pretty_knickers
Facebook: @prettyknickersproductions
Instagram: @prettyknickersproductions.

Mhairi McCall in Salamander. Pic Calum Ferguson



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