A Respectable Widow Takes to Vulgarity

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A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
February 18-23, 2019

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Glorious colours lit up the stage as we arrived at the Venue in the Oran Mor; it all looked very plush. This was the second production in Oran Mor’s celebration season, a welcome return of Douglas Maxwell’s hilarious one-act play, A Respectable Widow takes to Vulgarity, last seen here in 2013 and just as funny the second time around.

The two characters couldn’t have been more different – the well dressed, middle class Annabelle Love (Anne Kidd) and her endearing, if uncouth, counterpart, Jim Dick (Craig McLean). From the moment when the hapless Jim opens his mouth and utters his first swear word, the whole room was shaking with laughter at the sheer incongruousness of the conversation. Easy and effective comedy, and yet also an effective tool for the writer to examine the polar opposition of their lives.

A warmth grows between the pair as Jim’s guttural language reveals his origins and his outlook on life, and the widow strives to emulate him, in turn revealing truths about herself and her late husband’s origins. She finds the foul language somehow liberating and increasingly throws caution to the winds as she tells the young man her intimate secrets and discusses the meaning of the words being uttered, much to his astonishment – his face was a picture! But perhaps the point was that intimacy could grow between this unlikely pair of human beings even though there might at first seem to be no connection between them.

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Make no mistake, the swear words made you blush, and yet the audience loved it and lapped it up. Annabelle Love (a dream of a name!) used them as an inquiry into life, pushing against its boundaries, finding a new freedom. Alongside her was the perfect protagonist who was able to explain relevance of the words as he also insisted upon using them. Their conversation became an insight into reality.

And as they screamed out expletives to the world, so their stories unfolded and their bonding grew. Annabelle expressing her hurt at the loss of her husband and Jim also reflecting on missing his dear father. There was something touching in the way the language brought them together to express their inner feelings, perhaps for the first time. Their moments of silence brought the room to a perfect hush.

You come away from this play feeling deeply moved and with a new interest in brushing away the barriers that separate us so that we can recognise our common humanity. Enthralling.

Daniel Donnolly

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Miss Julie

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Feb 14-23: Joan Knight Studio, Perth 
Feb 27 – Mar 2: The Tron, Glasgow
Mar 6-9: Festival Studio, Edinburgh

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Me & the wife love going to Perth to sample the ‘Horsecross’ contribution to the Scottish cultural landscape. Its a pleasant, unbusy evening’s drive from East Lothian & over the Bridges, where Perth’s shabby chic, warm & welcoming Venue eaterie has just started a new menu. Scottish Tapas. While tucking into our Ceasar Salad with Halloumi, & Tempura Broccoli, we were informed by the staff that David from the Gin Bar had watch’d Miss Julie & had developed a strong opinion on the piece.

Take an old foreign play, take a funky young debut director, see what you get. This, then, would be something like the season-opening Miss Julie from Horsecross Arts. First staged in Stockholm in 1888, writer August Strindberg whisks us to the estate of a Swedish Count – in whose ‘cat-is-away’ absence the drama unfolds. Adapted for the English language by Zinnie Harris, the setting fast-forwards to 1920s Scotland, & the middle of the General Strike. The next link in the chain was director, Shilpa T-Hyland, last year’s first ever recipient of Perth Theatre’s Cross Trust Young Director Award. To Shilpa, Miss Julie is, “a fantastic adaptation which really resonates for me with contemporary issues of intersectional conversation and the moments where we fail to reach each other.”

The Joan Knight studio theatre in Perth is a cubic delight, with a stage deep & wide enough to host quality productions. The play we saw there last night has only three characters – archetypically The Maid, The Butler & The Mistress. The action is wholly set in the working scullery of a stately home, into which struts a drunken Miss Julie – there is a party happening upstairs – to flirt with the butler, John, who has already been flirting massively with Christine, the maid. This, then, is the chief wormhole of the play; the creation, attraction & resolution of the chemistry between a count’s daughter & his chief servant.

I found Miss Julie an unusual piece to judge, it had as many merits as faults; intimations of genius, expressions of vaudevillian amateurism. As a spectacle it was perfectly watchable, there wasn’t a skipped beat for the full ninety minutes, & the idea – when class struggle is subsumed by sexual desire – was entirely engaging. Objectively we were never bored. But the ‘performance’ could have been done better, & when I say performance I mean that of the original playwright & his modern-day adaptor. We are not an 1888 audience.

As for the actors, on her third return to Perth, the ever-charismatic Helen Mackay as Christine was fastidiously wonderful. Beside her, Lorn MacDonald’s smooth-talking, slick-set John was bristling with talent, & together they were scintillating – Scottish theatre at its very best. Alas, Hiftu Quasem was a little too dry, a little too rushed, a little too unbelievable for her part. She was supposed to be playing a sultry, kinky, upper-class psycho, but the steaminess was less boiling kettle & more simmering saucepan. When there are only three characters, a play balances on a tripod, & with one unsteady leg the whole thing may simply collapse.

The whole third scene was like a boxing match, in which Julie & John – a soul-consuming love cloud hanging over their heads – exchanged blows from a constantly flipping emotional high ground. Without any dramatic pauses whatsoever. Then the line, “we have gone through in one night what married couples go through in 30 years,” popped out into the play to titters from the audience. I mulled on it for a moment & then realised that the whole 20 minutes may have been built around that entire gag. In reality, the entire scene was practically needless, or better for being heavily condensed, & I tend to feel that without it the play would have been much improved.

A confused & convoluted affair, like classical Roman theatre, I found Miss Julie sometimes skyrocketingly brilliant, sometimes pitilessly pithy, sometimes hysterically melodramatic. It seems Miss Julie may have lost something in the translation.

Damian Beeson Bullen

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Tartuffe

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A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
February 11-16, 2019

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It was exciting to be back at Oran Mor for their new season of a Play, a Pie and a Pint. Especially as this year they will be celebrating their 500th production since the whole thing started 15 years ago in 2004. The year got off to a flying start with a revival of Liz Lochead’s wild Lowland Scots version of Moliere’s 17th century comedy masterpiece, Tartuffe. We got an inkling of what we were in for when the lights went up and showed us a solitary figure, a cleaner with a yellow bow in her hair and a broad Glaswegian accent.

Centre-stage was a table whose red and white covering mirrored the floral wallpaper that decorated the room – a domestic setting. The four characters, played by Nicola Roy, Andy Clark, Gabriel Quigley and Grant O’Rourke, used the table to great effect as they danced around it using the words of the dialogue as weapons to deliver the plot, directly to each other and just as directly to the audience – a move that had great thigh slapping potential.

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The costumes had a vaguely 19th century feel and conveyed a certain distinguished quality of a prosperous household. With the wife definitely ruling the roost, as we can see in her encounters with both her husband and the disgraced priest, as she sees her husband being taken in by the treacherous visitor and offering him hospitality, while not seeing that he is trying to pursue both his wife and his daughter. Though the wife can see everything and remains in command of herself and them.

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This outrageous tale seems as relevant today as it was 400 years ago, concerning the sort of big moral questions we are still asked today, concerning love and treachery and honour. No less true for being told farcically in rhyming verse that had the audience in stitches throughout, even when the two male characters reached the extremes of desperation, shouting at each other. The priest in particular ended up praying and begging on his knees. His desperation should have had us in tears but instead there was laughter; even when he whipped off his belt and pretend to berate himself with it.

This was an hour that just flew by in a flurry of sharp delivery and deep truths, moving at speed from one character’s perspective to the next as the vicious story unfolded. We were picked up all unawares and invited to take a look at the circumstance all turned with gorgeous craft into a play with depth of story as well as character. And at the end of the emotional journey, we come, with great satisfaction, to some kind of universal truth – shouted, not whispered!

Daniel Donnolly

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Random

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West Yorkshire Playhouse
Leeds
February 8-16, 2019

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Random is a solo drama, written by Debbie Tucker Green for a solo female performer. It was originally performed in 2008 and later adapted into a BAFTA winning drama for Channel 4. This production was directed by Gbolahan Obisesan and stars Kiza Deen in the roles of Sister, Brother, Mother, Father and many other supporting characters.

The first thing that catches the eye is the rather striking set – a backdrop of haphazardly stacked chairs that evoke both the title of the play and that neatly visualises the idea of a household turned upside down. Hidden amongst the chaos are odd anchors of normality – a fridge and some school lockers. As the play begins with undercurrents of foreboding that bubble beneath the bright and lively dialogue, the starkly lit stacks of furniture are a threat of looming chaos over the family as they otherwise blissfully head into what is destined to be a catastrophic day.

The story begins with Sister’s reluctant conversation with her alarm clock. As she gets ready for work, she keeps a running track of time that continues throughout the entire play, providing an increasingly urgent momentum. The script provides small but vivid and relatable details of mundane family life – the stench of Brother’s bedroom, an argument about burnt porridge, Mother’s disdain of her children’s inappropriate dress sense, the preparation of unpleasantly sweet tea for some unwanted visitors. A seam of gentle humour runs throughout the dialogue as Deen addresses the audience directly, drawing them into the events as they unfold, who become unwitting members of the extended family group. The entire audience was alive with ripples of laughter in reaction to her engaging and lively performance.

The dialogue itself is certainly the play’s strongest asset – each member of the family speaks with their own distinct rhythms, their own language. Mother has a thick Caribbean twang, Father is gruff monosyllabic, Sister is sassy and confrontational and Brother is cocky and disarmingly charming. Deen’s delivery and performance sells each individual character as she bounds across the stage one moment as Brother and then freezes into the stiff and guarded Father. The dialogue has a real poetic quality, breaking out at times into almost-verse, transitioning between more formal soliloquies and conversational dialogue between the family members and the audience.

For a solo performance, rapidly switching between characters is a hugely demanding task and Deen mostly sticks the landing here. The main distinctions between the characters lie in the shifts of tone and dialect, propped by with subtle shifts in body language. These distinctions are more pronounced as moves energetically across the stage, however the lines are far more blurred during intimate and static moments and can cause at times a certain confusion as to which character we are hearing.

The lively opening act is brought to a jarring halt as the titular random act of violence throws the family into crisis. The tone of the performance shifts into more muted territory, the humour becomes either bitter or non existent and the interplay with the audience cuts away, leaving the auditorium buried in a thick silence that conveys just as much as the dialogue. Throughout the performance, the lighting is barely perceptible yet thoroughly effective, taking the space through the various times of day – it starts in the darkness of pre dawn, then shifts subtly to the light of a cold yet sunny day and then brings it round back full circle to the darkness of night, a darkness that has consumed and inevitably changed a family that was only an hour before comically arguing over breakfast.

Given the striking nature of the scenery, it felt starkly distant from the action on stage and despite some perfunctory use of the lockers, it had potential to lend itself more fully to the performance and create a more intimate picture of a family home and a surreal depiction of a family home torn asunder by tragedy. That said, any quibbles are minor and the silence that descended in the final moments of the performance were testament to the play’s true power. The story comes round full circle with a solitary character sitting with their back against a wall, simultaneously ruminating on how much has changed and raging in denial of this very change. Where once warm laughter had been heard around the room, this were replaced with tears.

Random provides the stark personal context of knife crime, something that is all too often reduced to a statistic. This play is anything but random in its careful, precise and powerful detailing of how these statistics affect real lives.

Steve Bromley

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Baby Face

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The Tron Theatre
Glasgow
February 7-9, 2019

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The Tron’s Changing House studio theatre is a delectable wee space, a smaller version of the main affair, compact & cosy but intimate & intelligent. Also compact & intelligent is twenty-seven year-old Katy Dye, whose remarkable contribution to the modern theatrical arts, Baby Face, is based upon her, well, baby face & her delicate, butterfly physique. Katy’s character is also call’d Katy, & thus we enter the passive-aggressive insanity of her self-portrayal more as family members than audience.

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Katy takes us thro’ a snapshot retropsective of her earliest years – from yelling baby to horny schoolgirl – blending discombobulating ballet with the most snappiest & effective of scripts. This is vivid theatre that makes the pulse burst with rawness – encapsulating the core of the paradox of living in a society which continues to infantalise women. As Katy came on to a male audience member sat next to his wife, it was nerve-janglingly awkward, yes, but also a crucial head-out-of-the-sand moment for us all. This is a strange thought-haunted world in which we live, with all its its creaks & bangs & psychic torments.

The show pendulums twyx the fragile fun of quirky cabaret to moments of extreme – tho’ at the same time highly riveting – unpleasantness. There is also a garish sexuality underpinning everything. Each scene is cleverly wrought, with Katy unafraid to slip to her underwear to perform costume changes! Her stage persona is a seething cauldron of moving physicality, quite acrobatic bends & twists; perhaps meant to represent the chaos of a young lassie growing up & going supernova with her hormones.

To experience Baby Face is to be the jaw-gaping anvil upon which Katy’s effervescent hammer pounds her psychic blows. A highly polished, thought-provoking, & brutally honest piece, which left last year’s Edinburgh Fringe gobsmack’d, & continues to hold our attention.

Damian Beeson Bullen

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Holidays

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THE MUMBLE TEAM

Are taking their annual Festive Break

SEE YOU ALL IN THE SPRING !!

The Lying Bitch and the Wardrobe

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A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Nov 26th – Dec 29th

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Hello there from the 2018 panto at the Oran Mor, Merry Christmas! Is there anything better than seeing a panto? Loudly planted on a tiny stage, the set looked very cute with lively colours and characters. This year’s show was sold out and the bustle of the crowd was loud as they took their seats and enjoyed their food.  Four of those familiar panto characters were to take to the stage including the traditional man in a woman’s costume, Dame Beanie Bumpherton (Dave Anderson, Empress Evil-yin, the baddie (Maureen Carr), Handsome Jack, the hero (John Kielty) and Ravishing Rosie, the female heart throb (Hannah Howie) all of whom were up for making a huge joke of themselves, the plot and anything else that came to mind.

All the classics elements of panto were covered – “oh yes they were!” – with the cast enjoining us “Boys and Girls” to greater and greater efforts as, egged on by them, we cheered, booed and hissed our way through the performance. Whenever they burst into song, which was whenever they felt like it, served to further raise the room into something resembling a frenzy. The plot really came alive when Handsome Jack introduced the Empress and she tyrannically declared that singing would no longer be allowed and that there would be a prison sentence for anyone caught singing. As music and singing are basically the heart of panto, her subjects were not happy to say the least.

With the plot fondly set in Glasgow, author Morag Fullerton had managed to cram in plenty of local name drops and hilarious topical references, all in best panto tradition, with all of the cast taking the p*ss from a great height. In particular, I have to mention Dave Anderson as the Dame, who perfectly balanced his place in the plot with a sort of ongoing stand-up act which was performed as if he didn’t know he was a man dressed as a woman. The sharpness of wit – and rudeness of language – had a genuine appeal to the adult audience, which was something we could have expected from the sardonic title “The lying bitch and the wardrobe” – makes you smile, right?

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The title was finally explained when it came to light that Empress Evil-yin had a dark secret hidden in there – a nemesis in the shape of the one song that would tear her powers asunder. The story unfolded and the plot thickened, with the people of the town afraid to sing a note for fear of what the wicked Empress might do to them. A few timely costume changes later, Handsome Jack and Ravishing Rosie finally broke into Evil-lyn’s house and discovered the one song hidden in the wardrobe, whereupon her power was destroyed and she was defeated, hooray!

In the end all was forgiven with the Empress even joined in the singing as the audience bade farewell to each character in turn. This turned into a big chaotic singalong that we repeated umpteen times till we got it just right. Then they left us with a big cheerio and a big cheer and applause from an audience full of smiling happy faces.

Daniel Donnelly

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Turns of the Tide

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A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Nov 19th – Nov 24th

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The set caught our attention immediately, with two well-turned beds with tartan drapes hanging above each. There was a Christmas twist to the show, as the two protagonists stood singing a comedic song wearing red leotards and black frilly skirts. Sandy (Julie Coombe) and Rose (Libby McArthur), otherwise known as the Heatherbelles, were twins who worked as entertainers on cruise ships, singing and dancing their way around the globe, though for once about to spend Christmas on dry land.

Singing ‘Donald where’s your troosers’, a famous – and rather righteous – song in the eyes of Scottish culture, the two proudly proclaimed their right to be Scottish. In fact their verve for Scotland put other places down for not being Scottish and hinted at what really made a Scot. This worked later as a cornerstone of the play when information provided from DNA tests reveals that the two are in fact far from being from the singular culture of Scotland. For the moment, their Scottishness was emphasised by their strong, full-on Glaswegian accents, delivering the messages with gusto and pride. Having set the scene, they pulled the focus around and began to reminisce with each other as they put their dressing gowns on.

With a touch of panto, the girls plucked random items from their suitcase – old clothes, a packet of jaffa cakes – using them as props as they really got to grips with their introspections on life, great or small. Sometimes risque, sometimes moving and sometimes just plain funny, the dialogue developed with ever growing certainty, camaraderie and intimacy, touching the audience who were busy laughing at the plethora of jokes, intertwined with many touching moments. Songs such as Paul McCartney’s ‘Mull of Kintyre’ and ‘We are sailing’ by Rod Stewart illustrated the story, portraying pain, celebration and, crucially, to entertain. In the midst of this quick fire, wide ranging patter, they would repeatedly mention KD Lang whose fight for acceptance as a lesbian became a metaphor for other causes fighting for acceptance in the mainstream.

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As to the question of nationality, a realisation started to dawn that the platform of being Scottish relied upon the idea of having always lived in the place and may not have been as vivid as they had at first thought. Being on a boat at sea may have had something to do with this growing uncertainty and the story takes a twist where we are asked to join in and question ourselves in a special, at times painful way, all portrayed in a very light hearted manner. Rose repeatedly stated that their unknown father could in fact possibly be Prince Philip himself. It was rather sad to see her reason like that, but it was also a great joke.

There was a shout from the character Gordon (Mark McDonnell) who only graced the stage for a moment, acting as an anchor and a balance from the point of view of being outlandishly loud, ever complaining about his backside at sea. The tragically theatrical side of the play was confirmed with a recorded message about their mother that kept getting cut off. But we found out from Rose that they had in fact been let go from the cruise because she punched someone who was standing in her way, a fact that she was rather proud of.

In the end, Rose smartened herself up, coming clean that she didn’t really think that Prince Phillip could be her father, that she in was in fact a self-reflecting person, rather than a delusional one.  And then, when the final devastating news comes through (I’m not going to spoil it for you by giving it away), the whole play culminates in the realisation at the heart of their story that sometimes the truth is too sore,

I found Lynn Ferguson’s play a wonderful, endearing examination of human strength in the face of potential heartache. There were insights into how to deal with sadness, portrayed through the tender care shared between two loving sisters. Plenty of twists and turns and a message that would break the heart of any onlooker, all masterly done in a cheerful, positive and sympathetic way.

Daniel Donnelly

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Oscar Slater

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A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Nov 12th – Nov 17th

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A projection of the book ‘Oscar Slater – the trial that shamed a city’ served both as a surreal backdrop and an introduction to Stuart Hepburn’s production, telling the story of a shameful episode in the City’s history which saw Oscar Slater, a German Jew, found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for a crime he did not commit. The story unfolds, narrated by the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, played by the familiar actor Ron Donachie, and it becomes clear that Conan Doyle himself took a great interest in the case and had been instrumental in uncovering the injustice done to Slater, played by Kevin Lennon.

The dialogue sets out for us the grim facts of the case; how 83 year old Marion Gilchrist (played by Ashley Smith) was brutally murdered for a diamond brooch on 21 December 1908.  The crime spelled disaster for Oscar who was quickly identified as the likely culprit on the flimsiest of evidence. The drama was intense and moving, but not without its moments of humour, as it portrayed the turmoil of the trial and Oscar’s death sentence, later commuted to hard labour. We were brought close to tears as the dead woman took to the stage and gave her testimony from the grave, she being the closest witness.

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But Sir Arthur, our narrator, used his Sherlock-Holmes-like powers of deduction to show that the evidence of the detectives in the case did not stand up to scrutiny, and that the conviction was more to do with prejudice against the foreigner than any real evidence. As he listened to the conflicting accounts of detectives and so-called witnesses, he would feign tiredness, with sad music playing in the background, and echoing the feelings of Oscar, locked away in prison for all of 20 years with his hopes sometimes being raised only to be cruelly dashed again by yet another seemingly outlandish official obstacle.

This production leaves you with a feeling of abhorrence and shame. The moments of silence only heightening the sense of shame, taking us to a place where for one to be ashamed is for all to be ashamed. We have to ask ourselves who is ultimately responsible when it comes to questions of guilt and innocent. Who will accept responsibilities far beyond the call of duty in order for the truth to win through in the end.

Big ideas, big questions, sharp and careful reasoning, all on show at the Oran Mor. A play that faced you with something that really mattered and didn’t allow you to turn away.

Daniel Donnelly

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Partition

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Leeds Playhouse
Leeds
Until Saturday 10th November

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Viewing this play was a first on two fronts – the first time I had seen a live radio play and the first time I had seen a piece of work addressing Indian Partition. I was wary that I may be in for a lecture and with the stage left to the bare bones set of microphones and a table with sound effects equipment there would be no-where to hide from it’s preachy tones. Yet I need not have feared for ‘Partition’ addressed complex issues with a light touch. As a play it emphasised the humour of its situation whilst not shying away from the historical horrors behind it.

The play started with a collage of crackly recorded voices from the past as politicians, activists and royalty spoke of the fateful date when the Indian subcontinent was split in two and divided into India and Pakistan. Underneath the mix was the ghostly echo of a news bulletin unfurling the events. Then we were upended by a crying woman calling out to someone – her boyfriend, husband, father. It was all far from clear. The play started out in this rather jumpy way which felt initially quite jarring. I struggled to tell who the characters were or how they related to each other. This wasn’t helped by the novelty – to myself at least – of having different characters in the same costume playing multiple characters in quick succession, and with no stage props or scene changes to help guide me. Soon however the play seemed to settle into itself and I became accustomed to the nature of the radio play set up.

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In fact the nature of how the play was staged often emphasised the skills of the actors involved. The actors were able to convey their different characters through acts as simple as taking off a hat or adjusting a scarf and at times seemed to physically embody their differing roles beautifully. All the actors were worthy of praise in this regard but special credit should go to Sushil Chudasama whose performances of both the energetic and playful Rajpal and his reserved Grandfather, Ranjit contrasted beautifully.

At first I was initially put off slightly by the central couple who I found a bit too ordinary to be compelling. The supporting cast of characters seemed bolder and more intriguing and yet I gradually I began to see that the strength of the play was in its every day setting and its gentle humour which rooted it in a provincial Northern landscape which felt both familiar and safe. The cosiness of this setting lent both tension and power to the moments when darker undercurrents were revealed.

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The use of sound throughout the play was superb and added a great deal to the piece helping the audience to evoke changes not only in space and time but also in mood. With clever use of sound effects and music we were one minute in the cavernous magnificence of the town hall, the next in a bustling cafe. I found the judicious use of silence also highly effective lending power to moments of already heightened emotion such as the monologues.

Once we learnt of the struggles of the two lovers to bring together their families for their special day the play began to explore the darker undercurrents of the subject and the reasons for these divisions. These moments in which we found out the real life brutalities partition was responsible for were handled with a marked subtlety. In lesser hands these shocking and emotional truths – they are based on real life testimonials – could have jarred badly with the overall tone of the play but here they almost snuck up upon the audience making them all the more moving. We learn not only how events of real life horror can change individuals beyond recognition but how the fear and anger associated with them can be passed down the generations and have repercussions decades later and thousands of miles away from their ground zero.

I found Partition to be both an enjoyable drama full of lively characters and also a very effective tool for the historical and cultural lessons it clearly wished to teach. It’s light touch and affection for the people and places it evoked was its real strength and in this way made the darkness underneath seem all the more potent than any number of more bleak and worthy works could have been.

Ian Pepper

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