First published in The Times, Monday February 5 2018
The Match Box: Four Stars
Company: Three Stars
Frank McGuinness, the Irish playwright, is as celebrated for his translations of classics, including tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides, as he is for original works such as Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. His monologue, The Match Box, first performed in 2012, has a vividly described contemporary setting but the questions it asks are as old as civilisation itself.
In this Scottish premiere, staged by Firebrand in association with the Byre and Heart of Hawick, Janet Coulson delivers a compelling portrait of a woman addled with grief at her daughter’s murder. The bones of the story are straight out of a modern-day news report. Twelve-year-old Mary is caught in the crossfire of a feud between three brothers. No witnesses come forward, despite the fact that everyone in the community seemingly knows who committed the crime. The siblings later succumb to a devastating house fire.
Pic: Alistair Kerr Photography
McGuinness deliberately leaves the question of whether Sal and her flinty Irish parents are responsible for an act of summary justice unanswered. Yet the playwright goes well beyond the story’s tabloid premise to explore the primitive and terrifying emotions unleashed by grief. In Richard Baron’s crisply staged, slow burn of a production, Coulson excels as the woman eking out her days, idly striking matches while in exile on a remote Irish island. At one point, Sal describes herself as being “carved from polished wood”, and the show’s most powerful moments come when the façade momentarily gives way, exposing the raw passions raging just underneath.
Further north, the Aberdeen Arts Centre is in the midst of a run of Company, Stephen Sondheim’s ground-breaking musical, about Bobby (Oliver Savile), the linchpin of a large group of friends in Seventies New York, who is adrift in a bout of soul-searching as he approaches his 35th birthday.
Savile gives a likeable performance as Bobby, who is famously unmarried, “seven times a godfather” and never spends any time in his apartment, even if Derek Anderson’s production glosses over some of the nuances of Sondheim and George Furth’s piece, including the protagonist’s sexual ambiguity.
Pic: Pamela Raith
The staging does not encourage our engagement with the show, with the actors arranged against the drab backdrop of Nik Corrall’s bone-grey set. Nor does it help that Anderson’s direction is of the light-touch variety, often leaving members of the ensemble standing around with their hands in their pockets.
The well-drilled company lifts the material, however, notably in the ensemble numbers, with standout turns from Jacqueline Hughes as karate-kicking Sarah, Simbi Akande as the free-spirited Marta and Anita Louise Combe as cynical Joanne, ironically raising a glass to The Ladies Who Lunch.