Review: Charlie Sonata – Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

First published in The Times, Friday May 5 2017

Four Stars

Sandy Grierson is fast becoming the go-to actor for offbeat dramatic roles in Scottish theatre. The titles alone of his recent work hint at his versatility. In the past two years he has played the antihero of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Three Acts at the Edinburgh International Festival and the iconoclast musician in The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler for the National Theatre of Scotland.

Grierson is that seemingly contradictory thing: a trusted and sympathetic actor who is at his best when inhabiting deeply troubled souls. His character in this new play, written by Douglas Maxwell, is the kind of everyman failure the Hollywood actor James Stewart used to portray in the 1940s. Charlie (“Chick” to his mates) is unreliable, dishevelled and a hopeless alcoholic, and yet Grierson’s performance stirs palpable goodwill and affection.

25.Charlie Sonata. Photo credit-Drew Farrell

Pic: Drew Farrell

Maxwell’s picaresque tale takes place over the course of one long, inebriated evening. Chick, returning to Scotland from London, is planning to hook up with his best friends, Jackson (Robert Jack) and Gary (Kevin Lennon), when he discovers that Gary’s stepdaughter, Audrey (Lauren Grace), has been injured in a car accident. Initially seeking to numb his shock with drink, Chick is led down an altogether more redemptive path via a series of colourful encounters.


The plot itself is of secondary importance to Maxwell’s characteristic digressions into verbose, often extremely funny riffs on everything from the harmful sugar content of strawberry wine to the age at which grown men should consider themselves too old for Star Wars. Admittedly, some of these routines outstay their welcome, a couple of the supporting characters are superfluous and there is narration courtesy of Robbie Gordon that at times simply restates what is already apparent.

Charlie Sonata

Pic: Drew Farrell

Matthew Lenton, the director, amplifies the fable-like material with a fluid, dreamlike staging. The script may be overwritten but it is full of brilliantly energetic set pieces that creep up on us unawares with their emotional subtlety. The relationship Chick develops with Meredith (Meg Fraser), another of life’s also-rans battling to stay afloat, is a particular highlight, as is the flashback scene to the mid-Nineties, set to a Britpop soundtrack, when life for Chick and his friends seemed rich with possibility.


Box office: 0131 248 2828, to May 13

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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