Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Hawke & Hunter, Picardy Place
Tom, the school chaplain, has just lost his wife and may be losing his faith as a consequence. Merry, a precocious 14 year-old pupil, has lost her father, killed in a car accident. Seeking solace, Merry knocks on Tom’s door late one night.
The Fringe will soon be but a distant memory, but First Light, the last of award-winning Scots playwright Murray Watts’ three plays to feature this year will linger long in the mind of those lucky enough to have seen it during its short run at Hawke and Hunter’s impressive venue at the top of Leith Walk.
First Light follows the events of a turbulent twenty four hour period in a girls’ boarding school. Tom Weston is the chaplain and a housemaster who has just lost his wife and may be losing his faith as a consequence. He’s in a pretty dark place, as is Merry Catherwood, a precociously mature and aware 14 year-old who lost her missionary father to a car accident somewhere on an African plain and is clearly in need of the comfort formerly provided by Weston’s erstwhile wife. Seeking further solace, Merry knocks on Tom’s door late one night.
The play’s simple set allows for swift transitions between the six scenes, moving from Tom’s study through to that of the headmaster and finishing on an evocative cliff-top and the sound and lighting is minimalist yet appropriately supportive.
This is a powerful story about loss and the search for truth, principally by those appointed to investigate what actually took place behind the closed door of Tom’s flat. Prejudices abound as Marcia McAllister, Tom’s replacement as housemaster and Tyler George, the school’s ambitious and rules driven headmaster, bully and cajole Merry and Tom to indict each other, driven by the fear that either party may later change their original story, thus potentially putting those in authority in the firing line. The irony is that, in seeking the truth, the needs of the figure in the eye of the storm are completely ignored, a damning indictment on the neurotic, almost paranoid approach that we take these days to allegedly protecting children.
What stands out in this play, though, is the quality of the acting. Andrew Harrison (Tom) is remote and restrained as the chaplain yet touchingly vulnerable and needy whenever the subject of his late wife is raised. Laurence Kennedy (Tyler George) is suitably authoritarian and Jo Hole (Marcia) puritanical and paranoid. Both come across as concerned more for their own careers than the needs of their charges. But the virtuoso performance comes from Natlie Burt as Merry. At times coquettish, seductive, obstreperous, needy and yet supportive towards Tom and his predicament she is clearly one heck of a teenage handful, which rather begs the question as to who needs protecting from whom.
And that’s I guess the kernel of this moving piece of theatre. If we spent a little less time worrying about the consequences of behaving naturally and openly towards each other and a little more time trusting people to do the right thing, we’d all be a lot happier and safer. Rumours are that First Light will be touring later this year. If so, please go and see it – it’s more than worth a visit.