Writer: David Greig
Director: Hal Chambers
Reviewer: Paul Couch
Suffolk-based rural touring company Eastern Angles may have cast its creative net a little wider for The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, set firmly in a Scottish Borders winter, but that shouldn’t detract from what a fascinating and inventive show this is.
A cast of four, Simon Donaldson, Robin Hemmings, Hannah Howie, and Elspeth Turner, tell the tale of Prudencia Hart, a stuffy academic and expert on “the topography of Hell” who finds more than she’s looking for while trying to reach her B&B after speaking at a conference. As she and her alpha-male colleague, the obnoxious Colin Syme, stumble into a nearby hostelry, the phrase “personal hell” takes on a much more pertinent meaning with the introduction of “a middle-aged man singing a capella”.
Written by David Greig (The Cosmonaut’s Last Message, Dunsinane ) and originally produced by National Theatre of Scotland, the structure and presentation of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart are reminiscent of companies such as GaggleBabble, who fuse engaging storytelling with anarchic music, but this is no Rodgers & Hammerstein romp, rather a wild tapestry of Scottish folk music and rhyming couplets, Karaoke and hip-hop, held together with some splendid guitar, fiddle, bodhran and djembe playing. There’s even some Kylie Minogue thrown in to satisfy those for whom folk music is akin to nails on a chalkboard.
Hal Chambers works his cast well and it’s difficult to spot where formal direction leaves off and improv takes over in this part-gig/part-play production. There is a small amount of audience participation but, for the most part, we are pub customers watching the action unfold before us. All four members of the cast take on multiple roles, Howie primarily as Prudencia, and do so admirably while still managing to wrangle instruments and various bits of costume.
The clever thing about this play is that Greig wrote it with a pub setting, which means that it’s easily transferrable to any number of non-theatre venues, as was the original intent; just perfect for Eastern Angles’ remit of taking theatre to audiences who might not historically venture into the larger conurbations. Of course, with such portability comes the danger that not all technical aspects work perfectly on the night, as was the case at Dedham with a recalcitrant speaker buzzing away from time to time, but we can forgive them that.
For venues that don’t boast their own pub setting, such as Dedham’s Assembly Rooms, Bek Palmer has created a cosy and believable bar room backdrop, complete with a dartboard and a vicious-looking wall-mounted ram skull that becomes rather more active than decorative in Act Two.
The story arc of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart may span over 4,000 years, but you’d never know it. Highly recommended, even if you don’t like folk music. Or Scots.
Reviewed on 29 March 2017, then touring across East Anglia until 27 May 2017 | Image: Mike Kwasniak