In celebration of the Public House

Apr 11 2020 | By More

★★★★☆    Virtually strong

Live on Zoom: Fri 10 April 2020
Review by Thom Dibdin

The Leith-based Village Pub Theatre made a welcome return on Friday evening by virtue of virtual meeting platform, Zoom, for a live performance of seven sparkling new plays, performed script-in-hand.

In many ways this was VPT as usual – plays performed after an hour or so’s rehearsal that day and written over a week or less with just a provocation for guidance. The provocation seemed natural in these times of Covid, too – In celebration of the Public House.

Sophie Good introduces Virtual Pub Theatre. Screengrab Sue Gyford

It is huge credit to VPT’s organisers for the night, playwrights Sophie Good and James Ley, that they used Zoom effectively enough to ensure that the whole evening captured the immediacy and adrenalin-driven seat-of-the-pants vibrancy which an evening of theatre at the Village Pub usually provides.

As usual, the evening was built on strong writing and nicely-honed performances, whether it was Ewan Donald as Calum McCallum, a bizarre collector of half-used toilet rolls in Sylvia Dow’s The Collector, or Nicola Jo Cully’s heart-rending performance in the beautifully-judged Corona Salad by Sue Gyford.

There’s no denying, though, that while the medium might be live, it changed the nature of the performances from all perspectives. And not just because VPT’s legendary home baking was limited to what you could bake yourself – and the bar list to what was in your cupboard.


The audience obviously interacted in different ways through Zoom – experiencing the performance itself on “speaker” mode which focusses on the person speaking, but between plays – and in the breakout rooms as half time – interacting with other audience members on “panel” mode which displays all participants equally.

Tom Freeman in Oh what a panic’s in thy breastie. Screengrab: Thom Dibdin

Not to forget the availability of a private chat facility, to pass comment during the performance, or the ability to see how other audience members were reacting – if they had their own video on. Indeed, it was entertaining to see how different audience members chose to present themselves.

Rather more interesting, however, is the different range of techniques which the writers and performers have to play with.

Some writers, like Jill Franklin with her Oh what a panic’s in thy breastie and Giles Conisbee with OMG, used the situation of lockdown itself as their setting.

Franklin had Laurie Brown and Tom Freeman as a pair drinking pals sitting down for a socially distant drink in their separate rooms. It had a huge topical resonance and addressed some of the more entertaining issues as what you wear for such an event as first Brown showed off his shorts and then, horror of horrors, Freeman his sarong.


It is at this kind of laugh line, or big reveal, that the limitations of the form become apparent. The need to mute the audience during the performance means that live laughter and vocal response is gone. And while the piece did a good job of making light of the current situation, you felt there was further to go than a couple of alcoholics reminiscing about the good times of pub drinking.

Conisbee used Romana Abercromby and Ewan Donald, actors who are isolating together, for OMG. Funny though it was, once again if felt that he was exploring the surface of the relationship between his characters to get the laugh – their reaction to realising they had lost Wifi – rather than something deeper.

Sophie Good made solid use of the form in all lower case no punctuation by setting her celebration of real pub culture over gastro-pub nonsense in a Zoom meeting between Mary Gapinski’s incredulous barkeep and Liz Strange as the old howf’s owner, intent on rebranding it, to the cost of the local regulars.

However it was Mary Gapinski who best demonstrated how to use the at-home technology with straight-forward performance in the splenetic April Fool by Grace Cleary.

Nicola Jo Cully in Corona Salad. Screengrab: Sue Gyford

Sitting on her sofa, jabbing her finger right up into the camera and raising her voice to what seemed like the limit, Gapinski was always in control. Unlike her heavy-drinking character, who voiced everyone’s feelings on the Westminster government’s ability to cope with the current crisis in a tumbling rush of earthy, profound, scurrilous and beautifully-formed commentary. It was an object lesson in pace and impact.

James Ley’s utterly surreal Leith Perverse Rear finished the night off in fine form, dropping Nicola Jo Cully’s magnificent drunk onto the backstreets of Leith, after a Village Pub Theatre night of course, falling into the Water of Leith and ending up talking to Irvine Welsh and Nicola Sturgeon in the bowels of the old State Cinema.

If that was a fitting end, bringing the night through the surreal into the real world, it was Cully’s earlier performance in Sue Gyford’s Corona Salad that was the stand-out piece of the night.

Logarithmic face-party

At first it seemed trite. A trio of actors blanked out their screens, renamed themselves Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, and intoned a series of dark, nonsensical Covid-19 memes. Logarithmic face-party, as one said.

But then Cully took over with a carefully crafted history of her character’s mother, from rebellious teenager running away to Paris to much-travelled nurse who, in her old age, was about to become part of the not quite flattened curve, squashed by a herd without an exit strategy.

It was properly dramatic and heart-breaking stuff which Gyford made horribly close to all our potential realities by finishing off with a return to the trite non-faces of the social-media platforms.

Running time: two hours (including one interval)
Friday 10 April, 2020
One performance only: 8pm.

Virtual Pub Theatre promise that they will be back. Æ will publish details as soon as they are released.

Village Pub Theatre
Facebook: @PubTheatre.
Twitter: @PubTheatre


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