Joyce McMillan on the Traverse Breakfast Plays
breakfast plays

Joyce McMillan finds the early start demanded by the Traverse Breakfast Plays is well worth it

breakfast plays
[From left: Meg Fraser, Jimmy Chisholm, Sally Reid and Kay Gallie bring Tim Primrose’s script for Broth to life in the Traverse – picture: Lisa Ferguson]

It’s well before 9am in the Traverse Bar, but the room is packed. In the middle stands a table bearing rolls, bacon, scrambled eggs, and big pots of tea and coffee. People sit at tables munching their breakfast, or join the queue that has already begun to snake its way down into Traverse 2, where the theatre’s associate director Emma Callander welcomes us, ten minutes later, with a glad cry of “It’s nine o’clock on a Sunday morning, and we’re in the theatre!”

And although some of the audience look as if they haven’t been to bed, there’s no denying the huge popularity of the Traverse Breakfast Plays; briefly-rehearsed, script-in-hand readings of new work featuring a brilliant team of actors, and lasting just under an hour.

This year there are six plays, rolled out for the first time from Tuesday to Sunday last week and repeated again this week, and each one has been written by a member of the Traverse 50 – the group of completely new playwrights recruited by the Traverse last year to celebrate the theatre’s 50th anniversary.

And if this raft of work is any guide, the future of Scottish playwriting is in promising hands; not safe hands, though, as these plays – each with a strong Scottish voice – veer through various risky levels of fantasy and surrealism, in their effort to get to grips with times that are often frightening and sometimes downright absurd.

So the week begins with Tim Primrose’s Broth, a play about the deadly serious issue of domestic abuse, handled with a wild and fantastical humour that defies domestic miserabilism, and even conjures up a faint echo of Synge’s Playboy Of The Western World, with its image of a rowdy and violent old patriarch rising again, despite fierce blows to the head from three generations of women who have finally had enough.

There’s also a strong theme of domestic violence in Molly Innes’s Mother Ease, perhaps the most naturalistic play of the six, although here, too, there’s a sense that narratives can be unstable.

In a council flat, two single mothers face one another, each convinced that she is advising the other on how to cope. Eventually, they join forces to tackle a real case of child abuse, but not before this slow-moving but disturbing play has raised key questions about whose assumptions dominate, and who patronises whom, in our increasingly judgemental national debate about “bad parenting”.

For sheer formal flair and accomplishment, though, it’s the two romantic comedies in this Traverse Breakfast season that really raise the stakes. Alison Carr’s Fat Alice is a brilliant metaphorical drama about a troubled couple – him married, her his mistress for the last ten years – whose relationship reaches a crisis point when the vastly fat woman in the flat above their love-nest begins to crash down through the ceiling.

The play asks a simple question – when is enough enough? But the sparkle and swing of the writing is irresistible, and there is something deep in Carr’s central metaphor, about a society ill with self-indulgence and unable to kick the habit.

And Lachlan Philpott’s Walter is equally funny and assured, a hilarious fantasy-drama about a single woman called Gina, approaching her 40th birthday, and her sister Sandra’s relentless attempts to pair her off with a man called Walter, who turns out to have some very strange interests.

There’s something here about the beast within, and about the sheer risk and messiness of letting another person into our lives, after a certain age, but also a fabulous mix of poetry and well-turned, well-timed comic writing. If all four of these plays show social tensions mediated through domestic life, though, the remaining two take a more explicitly political view of issues arising in Scotland, and elsewhere.

Martin McCormick’s The Day The Pope Emptied Croy is set on the day in 1982 when Pope John Paul II visited Scotland, and what seemed like every Catholic in the country went to Bellahouston Park in Glasgow to hear him say Mass.
In a deserted church in the little Catholic village of Croy, two lads are therefore plotting a raid on the communion chalice. Ranald is a Protestant, under pressure to display his loyalty within his own community, while young Finbar is a Catholic who cares about nothing but his relationship with Ranald.

Their story soon takes a surreal turn, though, in a passionate work-in-progress that tries out several different tones before emerging as a straightforward call-to-arms for gay rights, in a world where coming out could be dangerous back in the 1980s, and perhaps still is.

It’s Sylvia Dow’s Blinded By The Light, though, that perhaps creates the most enduring political and dramatic vision of the week, with its intertwined narratives about a miners’ sit-in in a pit in Bo’ness in that same year, 1982, and about the lives of a group of human survivors who have gone underground into the same old mine workings to escape catastrophic climate change, a century later.

Blinded By The Light is not a wholly successful play. Its structure is complex, the 1982 sequences a shade predictable, yet it demands a range and reach of its acting company that suggests a bigger play to come.

And here, as in all the other plays, the acting ensemble of Jimmy Chisholm, Andy Clark, Keith Fleming, Emma Hartley-Miller and Scott Reid – joined elsewhere by Kay Gallie, Sally Reid, and Meg Fraser – offered a dazzling display of sheer professional skill and commitment.

They delivered some of the finest, toughest and most thought-provoking entertainment on the Fringe.

The Traverse Breakfast Plays run until 24 August. Today 9am, more info

Originally published in The Scotsman

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