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Festival Review: Traverse Two

Michael Cox reviews Expensive Shit, My Eyes Went Dark, In Fidelity, Diary of a Madman and Greater Belfast.

The good news concerning the five shows running on the Traverse Two stage is that there isn’t a bad one among the lot. The unfortunate news is that many of them have a common, ironic flaw.

Take Expensive Shit (***), a new play by acclaimed performer Adura Onashile (who also directs here). Set in two series of female toilets, one in Africa and the other a few years later in Glasgow, the play looks at the lives of two groups of women, all looking for a better future (or at least a good pull). These are tied together by Tolu (Sabina Cameron—phenomenal), who is hoping for a better life in both timeframes.

There is an excellent idea here, and Onashile’s script does show its full potential in small moments. However, it still feels a bit under-developed and needs another draft to tighten up dialogue and clarify character and plot. What isn’t lacking is the quality of the performers—all four are excellent and easy to sympathise with, particularly Cameron’s leading lynchpin.

For its energy, ideas and terrific performances, the production is worthy. But it could be so much more.

Also facing an odd dramaturgical glitch is My Eyes Went Dark (***), a rather difficult piece played by two actors. Nikolai is an acclaimed architect, and he has just suffered the worst atrocity one can imagine: his wife and children were killed in a plane crash. Adding to the tragedy is the fact that the crash was caused by a simple accident made by an air controller. Nikolai is not at all happy about it being considered a mere ‘accident’ and becomes blinded by the need for justice.

Matthew Wilkinson’s story is quite harrowing and goes into some interesting territory. Alas, his script comes across more like a collage of scenes—each with good dialogue and plot—that as a whole feels bloated.

The piece is elevated to great heights by its cast. Cal MacAninch plays Nikolai and runs the full gambit of emotions. Sometimes sympathetic, other times revolting, MacAnich plays his role to the hilt. Equalling him is Thusitha Jayasundera, who plays every other character in the narrative with aplomb.

Together they create a production that is easier to admire than like. They are impressive—the production is, unfortunately, less so.

Much more palpable is Rob Drummond’s latest: In Fidelity (***). Drummond runs the production like a dating show, putting single audience members through some Q&As before selecting two to go on an hour-long date before the audience. This is juxtaposed with research Drummond has done on relationships and love, which in itself is compared with his own marriage.

It’s much more entertaining than that description sounds, mostly because Drummond is an excellent stage presence. He’s funny and charming, and he’s very good at making audiences feel at ease. But in many ways, that is also the production’s flaw: it works because he himself works well on stage, not necessarily because the piece itself is strong.

It is quite possible that this play’s success hinges on the selected couple. For the press night, the two people selected seemed willing to play but still kept their distance from each other (there were also some possible problems with the fact one of them was French and so may have struggled with the language barrier).

In short, In Fidelity is a lot of fun, but it is nowhere near as good or profound as Drummond’s best work.

The most successful script of the Traverse 2’s current run can be found in Al Smith’s Diary of a Madman (****). More inspired by Gogol’s original story than a straight adaptation, Diary is set in modern Scotland and focuses on the Sheeran family, who for generations have had the job of painting the Forth Rail Bridge. Pop is the person currently tasked with the dangerous job while his wife Mavra looks after the family. Daughter Sophie is planning to leave for England to go to university—as much to achieve independence—and prefers hanging out with pal Mel, whose family run the community.

The plot kicks off when Matthew White arrives, a university student who’s been tasked to both assist Pop in the annual painting but to also test out a new paint, a paint that may lead to Pop’s job disappearing and jeopardising his family’s legacy.

Smith’s script works well because he spends the first half of the play focused on the characters rather than the plot, so when events take a (rather predictable) turn, the audience is invested in the welfare of all five characters. It moves at a quick pace, peppered with witty lines and observations.

Director Christopher Haydon has created a brisk production that is both funny and tragic and filled with memorable moments. His cast are equally wonderful, creating a solid ensemble that also give great individual turns.

Funny and heart-breaking, Diary is a tour de force of writing, directing and acting.

However, the production that creates the strongest impression is also the shortest: Greater Belfast (****). Theatre maker Matt Regan has created a love letter to the city, mixing music, poetry and storytelling. The result is less of a coherent story but more of a delicious artistic meal.

Regan’s poetry is greatly complimented by his music, brilliantly played live by four musicians. Together, the audience are taken on an auditory journey that is touching, funny and genuinely moving. It lingers in the mind and the heart far longer than the final note echoes through the theatre.

All productions perform at the Traverse Theatre on a rotating schedule until August 28 (dark Mondays).

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