Browse reviews

FringeReview Scotland 2012

The Occupation of Heather Rose

The Arches and the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival

Genre: Drama


 The Arches


Low Down

This is a one woman show that is based on the real life experiences of former mental health nurse Wendy Lill of Canada. Heather Rose arrives onstage in what ought to be a debriefing session with the woman who sent her to an outpost in the Northern Canadian territories. Manning a nurse’s station for Indians she arrives as an idealist but returns broken and drinking with dreams shattered and nerves as frayed as the Indians she was due to be nursing. As her state appointed confidante is nowhere to be seen we become her audience as she tells the story of how isolation living in an unforgiving countryside robbed her of the pretensions of youth,delivering back a wiser yet angrier young woman.


Wendy Lill’s one woman show is presented as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival in Glasgow. It is easy to see why this production fits in helping us understand how people can fall victim to their surroundings. Heather Rose is the wrong side of slightly irritating to begin with and we do find it difficult at the start to empathise with her. If she were English the hockey sticks might have been primed. The script however, allows us to follow the story with hints, nudges and a lack of detail at the beginning matching the primness of Nurse Rose before she realises that the only comfort she could achieve in the frozen north came with the frozen north. We may live in times where the story may be obvious before it unfolds but that does not mean the telling of it is any less entertaining, illuminating or worthwhile.

Written in the late 80’s I can remember the naivety with which people with ideals went to help others through service prior to burgeoning our library shelves with self help books. Rose is one of the “with gusto” types that arrive at a helpless place believing they can bring salvation. Played with the right amount of energy turning to pathos by Molly Bunder we get a brilliantly observed slow deterioration of a soul whose enthusiasm is not matched by her descent. Rather than the troughs matching the peaks Bunder delivers an excellent performance that holds onto the character rather than delving into caricature. It would be so easy to try and give us this appallingly wretched soul at the end who observes the death of one of the young Indians rather than an intelligent rendering of someone with backbone, fibre and resilience.

Bunder also uses her physicality and vocal dexterity to give us the other characters in this drama. Again she manages to keep these sublime. Each one drawn is well observed and her Canadian accent is so well mastered it served to give us the correct canvass on which her observations were drawn.

This combination of a believable script along with the ability of such a fine actress is then joined, in a holy trinity by a sympathetic hand on the director’s tiller. Nicola McCartney directs with an understanding that she enlightens us with through pre publicity, talking of her own battles with mental health issues. The disadvantage of dealing with darkness in real life here illuminates the play.

I did find the set a tad thrown together though the floor cloth was an interesting addition. The Occupation of Heather Rose required little in the way of set but my eyes did get constantly drawn to the cloth over the table. It looked as though it was held together by gaffa tape. The costume was a nurse’s uniform – what else would you expect!

I was somewhat confused by the lighting. At times it seemed to change when Rose was in full flow, neither marking a change of mood nor a change of scene. There was one light that was irritatingly directly shining in my eyes – I am all for the performer but think she should get all the limelight not just some of it.

The soundscape of Indian chanting and music seemed to deliver for me the opposite effect. Brought in at times to underscore the emotions or events I was ensnared by it; almost hoping for a CD salesman at the end.

Overall this is one play that I would love to see repeated with a longer run. It has such a rich set of characters that require skilled interpretation. This production was well worthy of it though some of the technical aspects could have been improved a touch.