Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2006
**** / ****

My Irish blood rejoices to find that the two most impressive offerings in the Traverse's main Cambridge Street premises both originate from the Auld Sod: one monologic, the other musical; one charting the everyday, the other scaling the heights of surrealism; one in Traverse One, one in Traverse Two.

In Two, the Bush Theatre production of Pumpgirl by Abbie Spallen is like the dramatic offspring of Conor McPherson and Richard Cameron. A trio of intercut monologues tell the story of the eponymous naïve young petrol-station attendant, the small-time stock-car ace and general good-for-nothing, and the long-embittered wife whom he cuckolds with Pumpgirl and who in turn betrays him. Spallen's script captures the greyness of these people's lives in the border country of south Armagh and their fruitless attempts to enliven it through word or deed. Sometimes gruesome events and minor details of specific Northern Irishness are alike recounted with the same matter-of-factness. (This is the side of me that finds delicious black humour in Pumpgirl's recollection that "On bomb-scare days the convent up the road evacuated all the nuns apart from the really old ones.") Mike Bradwell's production is scrupulous as ever, with Maggie Hayes particularly strong as wife Sinéad.

Tom Stoppard's Travesties delights in the coincidence that James Joyce, Lenin and the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara were all in Zurich in 1917. In Improbable Frequency in Traverse One, Arthur Riordan comes close to this with the similar serendipity that found poet John Betjeman, oblique humorist Flann O'Brien and physicist Erwin Schrödinger all in Dublin in 1941, during what Ireland refers to as the Emergency: as a chorus of British diplomats sings, "Is it smugness or insurgency/That makes them say 'Emergency'?/I feel it lacks the urgency/Of 'World War Two'." For Riordan, and composing duo Bell Helicopter, top Stoppard by making their kaleidoscope of coincidences a musical, whose patter-songs are crammed so densely with puns as to satisfy the most die-hard fan of W.S. Gilbert or Tom Lehrer. The O'Brienesque plot of wartime espionage and an improbable secret weapon conceals an often trenchant study of the ambivalence and calculation which informed the Irish Free State's position of neutrality in WW2. All that's missing from the gloriously fizzing mixture of Lynne Parker's production for her company Rough Magic is Schrödinger's famous cat... or perhaps, if we open the box further, it is there after all...

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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