Review: Hope and Joy – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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First published in The Times, Tuesday November 5 2019

Three Stars

Ellie Stewart’s play opens in a room in the maternity unit of a hospital where Hope (Kim Gerard) is giving birth alone. A brief exchange with the sunny-natured hospital cleaner, Joy (Beth Marshall), offers respite from contractions. The stage seems set for a tale of quirky friendship and heart-warming realism.

But the piece takes an unexpected sidestep into self-conscious absurdism when Hope, a government scientist, gives birth to a large egg, the product of her relationship with a whooper swan. When Joy helps her friend to escape from the ward, the women’s paths diverge. While Hope occupies herself in raising her feathered son, Magnus (Ryan Havelin), Joy, who is caring for a bed-bound mother, finds herself at the mercy of a heartless benefits system.

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Pic: Jassy Earl

This story of human-avian cross-fertilisation has heavyweight antecedents, from the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan to Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. There is even a touch of the Icarus myth in Magnus’s attempt at flight. On his way north to Iceland, the bird boy becomes entangled with a drone and drops from the sky. He winds up performing as a pole dancer in Stornoway.

 

Yet Stewart’s play, structured as a series of short scenes, never really transitions beyond light-hearted whimsy. The script touches upon several issues, including friendship, acceptance and adjusting to changing circumstances and environments, without maintaining a clear thematic focus. The action is interspersed with passages of movement, set to Susan Bear’s staccato sound design, that mostly feel like padding for an hour-long show.

Stellar Quines & Pearlfisher_ Hope and Joy by Ellie Stewart Beth Marshall Kim Gerard Photo Jassy Earl

Pic: Jassy Earl

Under Caitlin Skinner’s direction, the trio of actors give adept comic performances, responding to the surreal nature of the situation with utter ingenuousness. Marshall’s Joy is moving in her stoic optimism, even as she ends up on the streets while humour is derived from Magnus’s attempt to square his obvious otherness with typical teenage concerns. Becky Minto’s forest design frames the action within a suitably fairytale backdrop, and Stewart’s script, while a little shapeless, does offer up an answer to that age-old question of what came first, the chicken or the egg.

 

Touring to November 15. Stellarquines.com

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