Edinburgh Festival Fringe theatre review: The Jennifer Tremblay Trilogy Part III: The Deliverance, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, Swallow, Allie reviewed by The Scotsman’s Joyce McMillan.
The Jennifer Tremblay Trilogy Part III: The Deliverance
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
The voices of women are being heard loud and clear across this year’s International Festival and Fringe, but what they have to say is not often of much comfort.
The story of Antigone, confronted by a form of male power she finds so brutal and indecent that she will sacrifice her life to defy it, is one of the leitmotifs of this year’s festival and it finds echoes – faint, defiant, tragic or transformative – in dozens of other plays in Edinburgh this year.
And it’s finally the transformative mood that dominates the last play in the great Jennifer Tremblay Trilogy from Quebec, developed by Scotland’s female-led Stellar Quines company over the last half-decade.
Its sole female character – played with terrific power and compassion by Maureen Beattie, throughout the whole trilogy – has been seen as a harassed mother, and as a woman struggling to reconcile her own life with her mother’s harsh childhood experience.
In this final play, though, the mother is dying, and the woman is forced to confront bitter truths about her own childhood, dominated first by a glamorous, elusive father who left his family, and then by a bullying stepfather who quickly came to hate both his new wife and her daughters, with a terrible, life-crushing contempt.
So the oldest daughter, long alienated from the church, comes to pray to a god she despises for one last favour for her dying mother, in a space glowing with the colour, light and wit of John Byrne’s set and Jeanine Byrne’s lighting, which shows us a bearded baby Jesus glowering sceptically up at the Madonna on the altar-piece.
Muriel Romanes’ direction is immaculate, Philip Pinsky’s sound a vital element in a unforgettably rich and vivid hour of solo theatre.
And if the character Beattie gives us this time is an escapee of sorts, full of glamour and sorrow, this brilliant final piece of writing from Tremblay also reminds us that no-one can ever fully escape the shaping force of childhood; and that for some, the experience of abuse echoes down through their whole lives, to the very moment of death.
At the Traverse, meanwhile, The Corn Exchange company of Dublin offers up an even darker image of the impact of abuse, in director Annie Ryan’s stage adaptation of Eimear McBride’s acclaimed 2013 novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.
In this austere yet hugely dynamic 80 minutes of theatre there’s no gleam of redeeming colour, on a set that offers nothing but a vista of watery grey-blue. There’s just a bare stage, a powerful soundscape by Mel Mercier, and the astonishing Aoife Duffin, telling the first-person story – from the womb to the age of 20 – of another girl born into a family abandoned by its feckless father; a girl disliked and unloved by her unhappy mother, and loved only by her slightly brain-damaged older brother, to whom she tells her story.
There are many echoes in McBride’s magnificent writing; of Joyce in the final chapters of Finnegan’s Wake, of the strangely altered and reborn language of Enda Walsh’s plays, and of more conventional accounts of childhood and youth darkened by sexual abuse, by self-hatred, and by a general lack of love. The sheer imaginative and linguistic force of this story is astonishing, full of strange, clinging imagery of a girl unable to get clear of the swampy stuff of her childhood. And if Duffin’s performance has not yet quite measured the scale of the big Traverse 1 auditorium, it still emerges as one of the great acting achievements of this year’s Fringe; intense, vulnerable, and full of a quietly burning spirit, only extinguished at the very last.
Complete transformation is the watchword, though, in Stef Smith’s new play Swallow, an elegant and glowing piece of 21st-century magic realism – exquisitely directed by the Traverse’s Orla O’Loughlin – in which three women struggling with the pain and alienation of modern city life find at least some answers; not in men, but in one another.
Anita Vettesse’s Rebecca is a fortyish legal secretary abruptly dumped by her lifelong partner for a younger woman; Anna is going quietly nuts in the flat upstairs – ripping up floorboards, stripping the place, and methodically starving herself to death – and Sam is a woman who wants to be a man, but eventually finds him/herself occupying a place between genders that seems more comfortable than conventional masculinity.
In the end, the rich mix of drama and poetry, comedy and tragedy that emerges among these three characters continues just a little too long beyond the plot’s natural crisis, with a series of false endings that sometimes border on the sentimental.
The energy of the story is impressive, though, as is every aspect of the acting and production. What it has to say about loneliness and redemption in today’s unforgiving cities is a message with a fine radical edge, as timely as it is heartening.
In Allie at the Gilded Balloon, by contrast, the story of the abuse of male power is told by a male writer and focuses less on extinction and transformation, more on how violent men eventually wreck their own lives, along with those of others.
In this play, his fourth at the Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh-born writer-performer Ruaraidh Murray steps up from monologue to dialogue, as he and brilliant young Edinburgh actress Megan Shanley act out the story of hard man Bobby and the gorgeous Allie, who becomes his girlfriend, and the mother of his lovely baby daughter. Bobby‘s reputation as a hard man wasn’t earned lightly, though and the violence that simmers beneath his macho charm is soon turned on Allie, who needs all her spirit and warrior skills to make her escape.
It’s a familiar story, well explored in many recent campaigns against violence against women, but it’s told here with real flair, terrific energy, and a strong local Edinburgh twist, in a show that boasts a fine performance from Murray as Bobby, and a memorable one from Shanley, as a young woman who finally takes her fate and her future into her own hands, in defence of herself, and her child.
- The Jennifer Tremblay Trilogy Part III: The Deliverance, Assembly Roxy (Venue 139) until 31 August / listings
- A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, Traverse Theatre (Venue 15) until 28 August / listings
- Swallow, Traverse Theatre (Venue 15) until 29 August / listings
- Allie, Gilded Balloon (Venue 14) until 31 August / listings
Published in The Scotsman on 13 August 2015
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