Writer: David Greig
Co-created with Wils Wilson
Director: Debbie Hannan
In previous years The Royal Exchange’s Christmas productions have been a mixture of crowd-pleasing musicals and light comedy classics. This year’s offering by Scottish actor, writer and director David Grieg is something of a departure. Billed as, ‘a Fairy Tale of sorts,’ The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart fuses Scottish folk songs, football chants and karaoke to provide an alternative to the usual Festive theatrical fare.
Set on the eve of the Winter solstice the plot concerns a University lecturer, Prudencia Hart, a specialist in interpretations of Hell in folk literature, who after attending a conference on Scottish Folk Border Ballads is stranded on the outskirts of Kelso. This leads Greig to show Hart descending into her own personal Hell, being forced to take part in a karaoke night with a marauding hen party before Orpheus like descending into the extremities of Hell itself. Here she meets the Devil with whom she begins a bizarre erotic relationship during which she reaches a point of self-discovery and eventually escapes the confines of Hell to fall in love with a colleague and rival who she previously openly despised. Other than being set shortly before Christmas it’s hard to know what attracted the Royal Exchange to programme the play in this slot, especially as it contains a lot of bad language and sexual imagery.
First produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and conceived to be performed in a pub, the production directed by Debbie Hannan feels strangely muted and it’s difficult to know whether script or direction are to blame. Written in a mixture of prose and verse, the script containing many Scottish colloquialisms and literary allusions is often incomprehensible. On this showing it appears that Greig’s play in crossing the border has failed to bring with it some of the ‘uncontrollable exuberance,’ and ‘rambunctiously life-affirming,’ qualities that previous productions have been credited with.
Often used to great effect, on this occasion the Royal Exchange’s stage is woefully squandered, at the beginning of the production scale models are used creatively to depict key locations in Kelso, this is a neat way to begin the show but the design by Max Johns does little to build on this, leaving, for the most part, a bare stage with little to embellish it. Irritatingly for most of the second half the stage revolves without any real explanation as to why. Often props and costumes look like they have been cheaply and hastily made and overall production values, usually, such a strong component of Royal Exchange shows are disappointingly poor, the one exception being Michael John McCarthy’s exquisite score and evocative sound design.
The cast of six work extremely hard to make sense of Greig’s script and bring life to Hannan’s lacklustre and haphazard direction but ultimately fail to make this other than a mediocre and pedestrian production. Despite this the two leads give performances that show great promise, as Prudencia, Joanne Thompson makes a real fist of exploring her character’s frailties and her joy on discovering her newfound confidence is palpable, Paul Tinto as the Devil brings much-needed charisma and energy to the role. This Festive offering however is very much a mixed bag and opinion will be divided I am sure between those who enjoy it and others like myself who would wish to see the theatre return to a more accessible Christmas programme in the future.
Runs until Saturday 15 January 2022