Review: South Bend – Gilded Balloon at the Museum, Edinburgh

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First published in The Times, Friday August 10 2018

Four Stars

Like many teens of his generation, obsessed with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and mad with love for Blossom Russo, the playwright and actor Martin McCormick was soaked in American culture long before he set foot on US soil. A spell in California as an exchange student did nothing to quell his enthusiasm. The sojourn brought him a legion of friends, attracted by his cute Scottish brogue, and his first serious girlfriend.

If South Bend were a movie, young Martin’s departure from LAX with a pledge to see his beloved in the auld country would be the cue for the closing credits. In McCormick’s autobiographical play campus high jinks are but the prelude to a blackly comic second act in which Martin travels to the titular Indiana city to find his girlfriend under virtual house arrest, in rehab and under the watchful eye of her adoptive mother Charlotte following a car accident.

Martin McCormick and Jess Chanliau in South Bend, credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan (6)

Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

If South Bend, Indiana is plum territory from which to explore the anxieties that belie America’s relentlessly positive self-image, the monstrous and unyielding figure of Charlotte (played here, like all the supporting characters, by the versatile Jess Chanliau) provides the perfect counterpoint to Martin’s Celtic inferiority complex, nagging melancholy and desire to be liked.

Martin McCormick and Jess Chanlieu in South Bend, credit Tommy Ga-Ken Wan (8) small

Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

That the material is presented in Ben Harrison’s production for Grid Iron in the form of a TED talk, complete with video clips and sound effects created by Foley artist David A Pollock, is an ingenious touch, at once drawing us in and providing an element of distance to the at-times uncomfortable material. The format also allows a wry commentary on “confessional” theatre, itself a gift to the world from Uncle Sam. When Martin repeatedly tells his audience to trust him, we know that elements of his story should be taken with a pinch of salt.

 

Box office: 0131 622 6552, to August 27

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