Oct 23 2023 | By More

★★★☆☆     Thoughtful

Augustine United Church: Fri 20 – Mon 23
Review by Thom Dibdin

There is plenty to ponder in Alex Cook’s intriguing new play, Schism, for Broadsword theatre, which is staged in the bowels of Augustine United Church for four performances only, ending on Monday 23.

Set in a Highland village sometime in the 1800s – between the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1736 and the Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1834 – Schism’s historical grounding is somewhat vague. But Cook uses it well to frame a play that is both a thriller and a debate on the nature of morality – which has its own modern relevance.

Calum Rosie and Tarah-Mae Balfour in Schism. Pic: Broadsword Theatre

The play opens at the tail-end of a long session in the front-room drinking parlour of a Highland Inn, run with an iron will by Tarah-Mae Balfour’s believably forthright landlady, Iona. A trio of locals, worse the wear for the drink taken, argue and growl at each other, but are pleased to be back in the howff after a short closure.

Iona has no sooner swept them outside, to carry on their chest beating in the rain, when a new guest arrives in the form of young priest, Father Charlie Morlin, who not only wants a bed for the night, but has questions to ask. Not least about the knocking and banging which seems to be coming from the inn’s cellar.


Cook, who also directs, sets the whole thing up very well. Balfour and Calum Rosie as Iona’s rather ineffectual husband, Struan, create a deal of tension between each other before the arrival of the priest, hinting at who might be hidden in the cellar, and already investing them with a great power.

Nicholas Thorne’s inquisitorial tones as Charlie add real menace here. It’s nicely unclear where his real concerns lie – with the whereabouts of the village postmistress, Lorraine, or in his debates with Iona on the nature of morality.

Tarah-Mae Balfour and Nicholas Thorne in Schism. Pic: Broadsword Theatre

The questions of morality, and whether God’s morals change or whether it is man’s interpretation of His will that changes, are well put. While Iona is concerned with changing attitudes to witchcraft, the relevance to a contemporary setting is clear and certainly bring into question any person who uses a deity’s moral code to justify their actions against a fellow human being.

The opening scene is brief and almost certainly holds more clues to what is to happen than is readily absorbable on a first viewing. However, it sets the tone of the piece well, particularly with Ben Blow as the garrulous Robert, who has seen a pair of hands pulling down the trap door into the cellar.

ebb and flow

It is some relief to realise that Blow is to be more used than in this cameo role, and no confusion either, when he returns as Father Logan, the person in the cellar who Robert has seen.

Cook handles the ensuing debates well. They are constructed with authority and performed with a strongly dynamic ebb and flow between Blow’s forthright and manipulative Logan and Thorne’s greenhorn Charlie, who knows that he has contemporary morals on his side. Only a final descent into violence doesn’t quite work as it might.

Ben Blow and Nicholas Thorne in Schism. Pic: Broadsword Theatre

The company use the small space effectively. Fraser Nickolls deftly used minimal design is just enough to suggest the inn. A basket of tools – carried unheralded across the back of the stage – bring a suitable chill to the production.

The whole piece does have a sense of a screenplay about it, not least a “voices in their head” scene, where both Iona and Charlie confront their memories before the final big scene. Sam Easton’s audio design ensures that this is not intrusive, however. Although Iona’s memories, featuring Jade McQuillan as Lorraine, once again probably contain more hints than are readily comprehensible at first.


Stuart Tweedie’s sound and somewhat crepuscular lighting do a lot of the heavy lifting in creating atmosphere, while supporting the on-stage action. The lighting in particular helping Cook change the emphasis of the argument as it weaves back and forth and grows in power.

It is intriguing to wonder what Broadsword could do with this material if it gained some kind of funding – dramaturgical support would certainly be useful. But on its own terms, with what is available, this is already a resounding success.

Moreover, this is a fascinating production which does much to reward the imagination, performed with some skill by the four-strong company which makes much of its limited resources.

Running time: 50 minutes (no interval)
Augustine United Church (downstairs hall), 41 George IV Bridge, EH1 1EL
Fri 20 – Mon 23 October 2023
Evenings: 7.45pm (Doors open 7.30pm).
Tickets: £10 cash, on the door only.
Further details on the Schism Facebook event page: here.
See also the Broadsword Theatre Facebook page: @broadswordtheatre.

Nicholas Thorne in Schism. Pic: Broadsword Theatre


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