First published in The Times, Thursday December 14 2017
If you peer closely enough into the murky corners of Becky Minto’s set for this new play by Morna Pearson, you will spot a tiny Christmas tree, lying on its side and pathetically decorated with a couple of strands of tinsel. At the end of the play’s 90-minute running time, snow floats gently down over the stage.
Putting aside the fact that these visual cues seem like token nods to the festive season in a determinedly non-seasonal piece of theatre, the play itself suffers from an identity crisis. Although Pearson tries to tell a worthwhile story about an impoverished family doing battle with an aggressive benefits assessor through a mix of broad humour, drama and, eventually, supernatural elements, neither the playwright nor the production’s director, Gareth Nicholls, succeed in reconciling the inconsistent tone.
Pic: Beth Chalmers
Pearson’s play, which is set in Elgin and written in Doric, the dialect of the northeast of Scotland, contains plenty of amusing lines (“I like a laugh as much as the next civil servant,” says Sally Reid’s humourless Jessica at one point). Increasingly, though, the sharpness of the dialogue can’t distract attention from the blatant implausibility of two of the three main characters.
Robert (played by Owen Whitelaw), the agoraphobic young man at the tale’s centre, pulls out his hair and peels off his skin but is endowed, rather sentimentally, with an extrasensory perception that allows him to turn the tables on his form-filling opponent. Jessica, meanwhile, is drawn agonisingly close to caricature, her officiousness at times recalling that of Pauline Campbell-Jones, the spiteful restart officer from The League of Gentlemen.
Pic: Beth Chalmers
Only Isla, Robert’s long-suffering younger sister, feels like a fully rounded character, and the performer Kirsty Mackay provides some much-needed emotional integrity to the final scenes. Nicholls’s production is flattered by beautiful design elements courtesy of Minto and Kai Fischer, the lighting designer, but the entire strange package is unbalanced by a plot volte-face that brings Twilight Zone-style sci-fi into Robert’s cluttered bedroom. It is a bold move on the part of the playwright, but instead of adding weight to the serious story she is attempting to tell, it ends up rather cheapening it.