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Preen Back Yer Lugs!
Published on Wednesday, 07 August 2013

4 stars

Pleasance Dome (venue website)
31 Jul, 1-11, 13-25 Aug, 12:25pm-1:45pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parents or guardians should consider the content of this show if children are attending.

A collaboration between theatre-makers from Scotland and Finland, Preen Back Yer Lugs! is a cheerfully far-fetched take on national identity, set in a future independent Scottish state. It’s the early 2100’s, and an unspecified apocalypse has finally occurred – rendering England (and, as a footnote, every other country in the world) a burning, inhospitable desert. So the huddled English masses have travelled north, to a Scotland ruled by a triumphant and egotistical dictator… a man who bears a striking physical resemblance to a certain politician of the present day.

Described like that, it’s hard to imagine a plot with more potential to offend every section of society at the same time.  But it turns out that it’s fine: for the first thirty minutes I barely stopped laughing, and the pastiche is targeted at English and Scots in roughly equal measure.  Playwright Paul F Matthew’s particular party trick is to take a time-worn cliché, and just when you’ve relaxed into knowing where it’s going, give it a quirky Caledonian twist.  So if you hail from the south, be warned that the in-joke count is unashamedly high – you certainly don’t have count yourself Scottish to enjoy the humour, but you probably do have to have lived here.

Quite rightly, however, the laughs don’t continue all the way through.  The mood starts to shift with a deeply uncomfortable scene in a comedy club, which reminds us how quickly and cruelly humour can turn against an outsider.  And towards the end, the imagery grows outright disturbing, as the increasingly fascist Life President’s plan for the English is finally disclosed.

But it was at about this point that I found myself wondering if the play actually had any real comment to share.  Yes, the dominant can become the oppressed, and yes, every dictator must one day fall.  But those thoughts don’t really go anywhere further than that – instead fizzling out into a Hollywood-style feel-good conclusion.

And I’m a little perplexed by the Finnish connection.  As I understand it, the plot is lifted from a play called Swedish Uprising, while the English-language adaptation was penned here in Scotland.  In the abstract, that makes perfect sense – but when the result depends so heavily on local in-jokes, I can’t help wondering how much of the original really remains.  What is left might even be misleading: the story seems to end with a pro-union clarion call, but I’m not sure whether that’s intentional, or the random result of transplanting a message from another culture into the all-consuming context of the referendum campaign.

So as a thoughtful warning, or a contribution to a debate, I found Preen Back Yer Lugs! somewhat wanting.  But it still gets its four stars – because as a knockabout piece of satire, it unambiguously succeeds.  If you’re politically aware and you’ve lived all your life in Edinburgh, then I think you’re going to love this play.  Or if, like me, you were born down south… well, think of it as your citizenship exam.

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