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Edinburgh Reviews: Tightlaced Theatre

Scottish Storytelling Centre
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

The bright, modern Scottish Storytelling Centre recently hosted a double bill of short plays from local performers Tightlaced Theatre.  Both based on historical true stories, the two pieces enjoy varying success – with the second in particular showing exciting potential for further development in times to come.

2 starsCharlie and My '45

The first play, Charlie & My ’45, views the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion through the eyes of the common man.  There’s some credible acting on display here, not least from playwright Robert Howat in the central role of Jamie – a clansman who finds himself marching through a foreign land, towards the inevitable final horror of Culloden.

Among the supporting cast David McFarlane also impressed, humanising the distant figure of the eponymous “Bonnie Prince” Charlie.  McFarlane’s Charlie is haughty enough to be believable, but vulnerable enough to make me care.  Yet when all is lost, and Charlie flees, Jamie’s left asking the question: was it all just a sham?

As a historical play, though, this is an opportunity missed.  It’s very brief – I didn’t note the exact running time, but it’s certainly less than an hour – and accordingly needs a resolute focus, if it’s to help us understand this unique and fascinating war.  Instead, the lion’s share of the time was spent exploring well-travelled paths, such as the pain of separation and the temptations of the flesh.  Worthy though they are, military themes have been understandably popular in recent years; and I didn’t feel I’d learned anything new by viewing these familiar topics through a Jacobite lens.

It’s a shame, because there so many genuinely distinctive thoughts Howat seems eager to share.  There are occasional, intriguing moments of insight: the image of Highlanders marching in Manchester, the brutal politics of the clan.  The famous retreat from Derby is central to the plot, but it’s disposed of rather quickly, with little attention to the confusion or soul-searching it must have caused among the troops.  Most of all, while the programme highlights the tragedy of a small country caught in civil war, that’s not a theme I picked up from dialogue or plot… if anything, the sense I left with was of an innocent man travelling in a foreign land.

According to the programme, Charlie and My ’45 started life as a one-man monologue, and I’m sorry to say I found myself wishing they’d left it that way.  It’s Jamie’s tale that really matters to us, and the conventions of theatre were almost a distraction from his occasionally-compelling storytelling.  The bare-bones set and stark lighting probably didn’t help – but I’m afraid they reflected the whole experience, which I found disappointingly threadbare.

4 starsI Promise I Shall Not Play Billiards

The second play, in contrast, blossoms in such unforgiving light.  An elegant and simple piece performed by four women in ballooning crinolines, I Promise I Shall Not Play Billiards somehow manages to be both sparse and sumptuous.  The spotlight is firmly on the characters, yet the times they are living in are always clear to see.

And the real-life central character, Madeleine Smith, deserves her share of the limelight.  A well-to-do 21-year-old living in 1850’s Glasgow, Smith was accused of poisoning her exotic but low-born lover – a Channel Islander, Emile L’Angelier.

Playwright Fiona McDonald reveals the facts of the case in palatable, well-measured doses, yet from a distance of 150 years Madeleine Smith’s true character is impossible to discern.  Is she the callous murderer the press made her to be, or the naïve and love-lorn woman revealed by her letters?  Or is she even a carefree socialite, who ultimately survived the infamy of her past?  Many a writer would try to sell us on one of these options; McDonald, bravely, chooses to show all three.

First we have a wicked Smith, played with relish by Debbie Cannon.  Here, we see Smith as an amoral and selifsh woman, who sees murder as a perfectly valid option and whose sharp wit seduces us into overlooking her manifest evil.  Canon is at her best during Smith’s frequent streams of endlessly creative invective, and it’s seductively easy to side with this feisty woman; after all, she’s dared to fight her way out of the corner that society tried to box her into.  But it stays rather too easy to think that way.  Playwright McDonald never quite holds up the mirror, to confront us with the true horror of what she’s tempted us to become.

Kirsty Eila McIntyre, meanwhile, presents a more fragile version of Smith, capturing her love for the doomed L’Angelier in an evocative physical sequence featuring a gentleman’s hat.  It’s also McIntyre’s Smith who sets the historical scene, dropping gentle reminders of the casual misogyny which was an accepted part of her life.  Later, the ever-reliable Danielle Farrow steps in as a future Smith, who’s willing – happy, perhaps – to trade on her one-time notoriety.  Farrow plays her role for laughs, with considerable success, but there’s a piquant side to her characterisation too; it wouldn’t be easy to live in a world where your friends forever fear there might be arsenic in their tea.

Finally, we have the real Madeleine Smith – the ambiguous woman we find in court, in the moments after her trial.  Played selflessly by an impressive Susanna Mulvihill, this Smith sits forlornly in the centre of the stage, reacting with the tiniest of gestures to the contradictory deconstructions of her past.  But at the end, when Madeleine finally discovered her voice, I found myself unexpectedly moved by her broken yet defiant monologue.  I wished we’d heard a little more from her, a little earlier; a few words from this vulnerable figure could well have offered new insights into the sometimes-cartoonish earlier scenes.

In a final, hard-hearted analysis, I Promise I Shall Not Play Billiards proved somewhat short of substance.  The script posed plenty of questions, but never really persuaded me to think hard about the answers.  In time, I’m sure McDonald will find more she can draw out of this story, but it still earns my fourth star for its morbid, scandalous humour – as well as its strikingly effective design.

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