Review: Heads Up – Traverse, Edinburgh

First published in The Times, Monday February 27

Three Stars

The stated ambition of Rantin, Kieran Hurley’s acclaimed performance ceilidh, first staged in 2013, was to build a theatrical portrait of what Hugh MacDiarmid described as “our multiform, our infinite Scotland”. The resulting patchwork of text and songs with its “multiple beginnings, abundance of middles and no clear ending” was delivered with warmth, gentle humour and an appealing lack of formality.

In Heads Up, which debuted at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the writer/performer tightens his focus on an unnamed contemporary city, and the tone is altogether bleaker. We meet a quartet of apparently unconnected characters, whose epiphanies are lent poignancy by a soundscape of varied motifs and moods, composed by Michael John McCarthy. The staging, too, is strikingly simple. For most of the hour-long running time, Hurley remains seated at a desk, delineating the switches between characters mainly by moving up and down his vocal register. On the few occasions in which he rises from his seat, the sudden shift brings us up short.


Pic: Niall Walker

It is a performance of admirable nuance and control, even if, perhaps inevitably, some of the people we encounter in this city on the verge of destruction prove more engaging and better drawn than others. The principal cast comprises a pop star whom we discover obsessing over his own image on instagram, a finance worker whose inertia suddenly gives way to an explosion of self-realisation and a barista clinging to a thankless job.


The most fully rounded and compelling character is Ash, a girl embarking on adolescence whose fragile equilibrium has been badly shaken as a result of a sexting incident. In this strand, rendered with the economy and precision of a short story, Hurley beautifully captures his character’s mix of incoherent rage and vulnerability while developing the story in genuinely unexpected ways.


Pic: Niall Walker

The show, co-directed by Alex Swift and Julia Taudevin, frequently makes for demanding viewing, not least towards the end, when the four interwoven tales become increasingly fragmented and Hurley’s performance soars to a deafening frequency. It is a pity that this final section is delivered at such a relentlessly high pitch: the noisy, slightly hectoring air begins to obscure the keener insights in the writing and the careful way in which the stories relate to each other through their shared themes of powerless, the deadening effects of a corporate life and the limitations of technology. A better ebb and flow to these scenes of dread and hopelessness would make its ideas all the more persuasive.


Touring UK to June 8.

Author: Allan Radcliffe

I am a writer, freelance journalist, subeditor and theatre critic, based in South Queensferry. My short fiction has been published in anthologies such as Out There, Elsewhere, The Best Gay Short Stories, ImagiNation, Markings, Gutter, New Writing Scotland and Celtic View. I have won the Scottish Book Trust's New Writer's Award and several of my stories have been adapted for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a journalist I write regularly for The Times, the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald, Sunday Times, Metro, Big Issue and I was formerly assistant editor of The List magazine.

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