Writer: Morna Pearson
Director: Gareth Nicholls
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
It may not seem an obvious scheduling choice for a festive theatre production, but the Traverse Theatre’s main stage show this winter is very much in the ‘alternative’ Christmas tradition. The spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge lingers in the play’s themes of social injustice, political heartlessness and in the redemptive ideas of what could have been, had life taken a different turn. Fizzing with pop culture references, Morna Pearson captures the consequences of a life unlived with an urgency that is hard to ignore.
There are shades of Jim Cartwright in the way Pearson presents us with characters rarely given voice on stage, in a setting which does little to shield us from the misery of their lives, but with wit and warmth and an interested compassion.
Robert (Owen Whitelaw) hasn’t left his room in years, not since Helen Daniels died in Neighbours. His sister Isla (Kirsty Mackay) is his sole contact with the outside world – their mother has long since died in a car crash and their father is away in Ibiza – until he receives a visit from Jessica (Sally Reid), a benefits assessor from the Department for Work and Pensions, to confirm Robert’s capacity for moving into the world of work.
Picking at his skin, pulling out his hair, Whitelaw’s Robert is clearly a man damaged by life, trapped by metaphorical chains in his mind, with aspects of fixation that suggest a presence on the autistic spectrum, and a child-like manner of engagement that belies a deeper intelligence and insight.
Mackay’s schoolgirl Isla is experiencing a shut-in of her own as she deals with a school system which fails victims of bullying, reduced to serving her brother Pepto-Bismol and passing it off as Angel Delight.
When some writers might be satisfied to explore the pantomime of demonstrating Robert fit for employment – ‘don’t worry, it’s not a test,’ Jessica reassures Robert, ‘except for the bits which are a test,’ before reducing Robert’s litany of ailments and afflictions to ‘skin rash’ – Pearson gives her story a big twist akin to Scrooge’s spirit visitors which propels it in an entirely different direction, before finishing with an almost festive tableau of redemption.
If the cast struggle at times to get their mouths around Pearson’s use of dense Highland dialect, the scabrous wit and frenetic wordplay still shines through. And whilst it may stretch credulity that youthful Reid’s Jessica has been assessing claimants for fifteen years, she captures well the callousness of a system which distrusts victims and tickles coma patients in search of benefits scammers, and takes a perverse pleasure from doing so.
Becky Minto’s set intrigues the eye and pulls off Pearson’s dramatic volte-face two-thirds of the way through the action in a mini coup de theatre, although Gareth Nicolls’ direction sometimes struggles to articulate the large scale sense of wonder and ‘otherworldliness’ suggested by the script.
Warm, witty, darkly revolutionary, Pearson’s compassionate anti-panto is very much a tale for our times.
Runs until 23 December 2017 | Image: Beth Chalmers