Review: Them! – Tramway, Glasgow

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First published in The Times, Monday July 1 2019

Three Stars

There is so much going in this new show from the director-writer team of Stewart Laing and Pamela Carter that even the cavernous space of the Tramway struggles to contain it. As in previous works from the pair’s Untitled Projects, which include Slope and Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, this collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland takes the form of a dense collage of ideas, images and provocations. The mix results in some fascinating moments, even if the disparate elements don’t entirely cohere.

The show takes its reassuringly panicked title from the pioneering 1954 “nuclear monster” B-movie, in which a colony of gigantic ants threatens humanity. The idea of “them” (as opposed to “us”) and the ways in which we define ourselves in opposition to those with a different identity, unfolds as a key theme of Carter’s script. Indeed, it is built into the production’s format, a TV chat show, anchored by the brilliant Kiruna Stamell, where the audience-performer divide is more fluid than in most other forms of theatrical spectacle.

Them production img- by Tommy Ga Ken Wan28

Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

A proposed musical remake of the film, set in Glasgow, is Carter’s starting point. We watch meticulously crafted video excerpts and hear music from the film’s soundtrack, both filmed and played by a live band. The director, played at first by Laing himself and later on by the actor Ross Mann, joins Stamell on the sofa to defend the half-finished project. An attempt by the interviewer to draw contemporary resonances is given short shrift. His film, insists the director, is nothing more than a good, old-fashioned dose of escapism.

 

Inevitably, the horror movie element proves something of a MacGuffin – a springboard from which to launch a series of conversations about the very idea of escape from our comfort zones and the possibility of personal change.

Them production img- by Tommy Ga Ken Wan38

Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

As you would expect from Laing and company, the production values are high, with spot on video direction from Anna Chaney and rousing songs from Carla J Easton and her band. The chat-show pastiche is clever, but it doesn’t always feel inclusive: some of the guests’ contributions are like lectures and more of an effort might have been made to involve the audience. A post-show gathering of cast and audience, in the presence of displays of thousands of Trinidadian leafcutter ants, is convivial, however, and suitably cathartic.

Box office: 0845 330 3501, to July 6

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