FringeReview Scotland 2023
Moving into a New York apartment with her life partner, Sarah has never opened a box which, for four years has followed her every house move. Now she has to decide whether to throw it out or to open it and find out what is in it. It came from an aunt whose funeral she did not attend and so there are multiple issues which have to be confronted. And that is precisely what she does. She discovers that her aunt, in the Appalachian Mountains, a ballad singer in the family followed her heritage to discover the stories behind the songs she sang which had been handed down to her. It takes her back as we find an interwoven fabric of history where the 17th Century pregnant wife of a presbyterian minister is dragged to Ulster where she begats a dynasty which leads to two sisters who run from one of them marrying a doctor to America and Boston which begats an American odyssey ending with an aunt, some tapes, a box and a New York apartment where one life partner finds that her longing makes the other life partner doubt if the life part is as permanent as it ought to be.
This is an astonishing piece of theatre; not flawless, but astonishing. Finn Anderson and Tania Azevedo have created between them a storyline which has taken motherhood, in many narrative forms – a gay couple where one wants to conceive, a death in childbirth, one aunt acting like a surrogate mother, another being a kinship carer, one woman with doubts over wanting to give birth, ironically, being forced to have it rather than a termination and an unmarried mother having to contemplate a mixed marriage in a time of religious intolerance before running away to sea – and weaves them with never losing us.
What is astonishing is that this is not a “worthy” piece. This is not taking any of these topics and making them the dominant force. It asks questions because it reflects life – life is messy, tough and asks strange questions of us. Here we see choices being made which, for some, women, there are fewer choices than they ought to have so their ability to exercise those choices, over their bodies is what is at the heart of each of these stories. It also adds a relationship at the heart which refuses to be the poster for LGBTQ+, it just has it at its middle.
From the narrative springs the sangs. And what sangs are chanted. These are apt, illuminating, show the rich diversity of our heritage and takes the biscuit tin and remoulds it: Anderson’s original pieces match the power and the beauty of their traditional accomplices. Their power is heartening and frightening. The melodies of She Asked For You, the repetition of Words Are Not Enough, and the darkness of The Four Marys were for me the highlights as well as the strength of the collective in the prologue and the epilogue. The collective was also much in vogue with the music, as the band were part of arranging the music.
The staging is fantastic as there are two box sets onstage used with moveable stairs that takes us from each century with ease. Creative uses of space with the band above and behind allows the foreground to be more than the dance space suggested at the start of the show.
As a theatrical piece it was aware of itself, and each performer gave the space enough moments to breath between them as the narrative flowed. It was a powerhouse of a performance.
Technically from costume (Emma Bailey and Zephyr Liddell), set (Emma Bailey), choreography (Lindsay McAllister), sound (Tom Penny) and lighting (Simon Wilkinson) it all shone. When you see something emerge as this has with a technically creative crew who craft things as they ought to be – additionally to the work mostly credited by those who come and watch – it makes such a difference.
But I said it was not flawless. The first half is over long. The central relationship felt very musical theatre at the beginning – not necessarily a criticism, but a personal preference – where it was bright and breezy and performancey from which very serious topics emerged. Centrally the petulance shown by Sarah at her brother’s wedding talks to the naivete of her at the beginning of the play, however, as someone about to complete a PhD, it felt a little too naïve and bubbly and bouncy.
It did not detract from the standing ovation it received and nor from any enjoyment I had. This has put the idea of a Scottish Musical firmly into the creative mind. I shall see less impressive theatre this year which shall have massive runs. That this will finish its run, exclusively at the Macroberts Arts Centre in one weekend is not wholly a travesty – it is an opportunity. Now that Creative Scotland have had their budget restored – get yer haunds round this thistle… Why? Because though we never fully leave the place we come from, this deserves to go on quite a few visits…