In 1950s Edinburgh, naïve schoolgirl Jenny meets rough-and-tumble urchin Tommy in an encounter with devastating consequences. Hywel John’s claustrophobic new play, Seanmhair (Gaelic for grandmother, pronounced Shen-a-var) is a tale of love and loss. From the foolishness of youth to the devastations of old age, Seanmhair is an epic story, a tale of enduring love and overcoming adversity. It is also a very human story; the tragedies Jenny and Tommy encounter resonate universally. With three actresses playing Jenny at different ages, the blossoming of a simple, loyal love in childhood into adulthood and the nurturing love of old age is portrayed with stunning realism. Furthermore, the dialogue makes Seanmhair one of the most engaging and entertaining plays I have experienced this Fringe. As storylines and speech overlap, while at once remaining distinct and coherent, the play builds tension to intoxicating levels.
Seanmhair is a visually arresting play. From the imposing stone walls that constrain the action to the central half of the stage, to the vicious neon lighting ingeniously used to signal scene changes, it is impossible to take your eyes off the action for even a second. The brilliant use of lighting at the play’s climax is guaranteed to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
The quality of the acting is second to none. Jo Freer’s staggeringly intense portrayal of the fiendish Tommy, Sian Howard’s sage and brutally honest turn as both the older Jenny and her titular grandmother, and Molly Vevers strong, defiant schoolgirl are particularly notable performances amongst the multitude of colourful characters that inhabit this tale. Even without props or set changes to speak of, the audience is transported from the seedy docks of Leith, to Edinburgh streets, to highland castles with effortless ease. This is down to the actress’ exceptional exposition of John’s vivid script.
Seanmhair is superbly funny at times and distressing at others. It is a sincere portrayal of love that pulls no punches, and provides no fairytale ending. With each of its distinct elements refined to perfection, Seanmhair is one of the most affecting plays I have had the pleasure to watch.