Morna Pearson’s new play is brought to life at the Traverse Theatre this December with a dose of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’–esque Christmas morality. It is Pearson’s most political work to date, which she wrote in response to the effect of austerity cuts on people living with disabilities. Pearson does not make her point subtly; she takes the audience’s compliance for granted. The play is written in Scots dialect and the dialogue is fast paced, taking the uninitiated ear a moment to adjust to. It takes frequent advantage of the wealth of comedic material to be found for someone with socialist leanings living in our political climate, but so well composed is this play that they are not tongue in cheek grunts of amusement from the audience but real laughs.
The play opens abruptly to Robert under his bed in a grubby room stacked high with scientific journals, files and vivariums. The stage design is clever and effective; Robert’s room is a shoebox style set placed on a revolving platform and the space around it is filled with bare lightbulbs suspended on wires, which creates a void-like space around the isolated room accessed by a rope ladder that drops down from the rigging. The director, Gareth Nicholls, uses physical sequences cleverly throughout the play, at times moving out of the room and into the void-like space to convey the otherworldly powers at work in the play. A mention should also be given here to the sound and lighting design, done by Kai Fischer and Michael John McCarthy respectively, which elevated the production into a higher class.
Portrayal of mental illness can be problematic in theatre. The medium often risks dramatisation or oversimplification of such issues, but Owen Whitelaw is brilliant as Robert, whose mysterious connection to something beyond the world in which he lives has left him too anxious to leave his room since the day that Helen Daniels from ‘Neighbours’ died, twelve years ago. He is supported by his sister Isla, played by Kirsty Mackay while their father is away in Ibiza on ‘business’. Mackay puts on a deeply empathetic performance of the gritty schoolgirl trying to get by in a world that seems to have only hostility to offer. It is a beautifully written part, encapsulating all the anger of being forced to rely on help to survive in a system that has no sympathy for those in need, and all the vulnerability of being a teenage girl. Sally Reid as the benefits assessor is somewhat cruder, however this isn’t disastrous for the character, a classic Christmas scrooge, transformed by her own Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
If you are looking for something to see this Christmas, or if you know someone whose heart could do with a little melting then come, bring them, to see this beautiful gem of a play. I cried more than once and laughed a lot, sometimes at the same time. It is one of the best things I have seen in Edinburgh to date
Guest Reviewer: Sophie McAlpine