Sunday, August 08, 2010

Edinburgh: While You Lie at the Traverse

Sam Holcroft’s new play, the Traverse’s flagship production at this year’s Fringe, is a many-armed thing, stretching in every direction. During its 90 minute running time, it shifts between satire, romance, absurdism, and body horror, but it never stays in one place for long. Its reluctance to sit still is a drawback and the play never develops a clear voice, rather it stumbles forwards from scene to scene, unsteady, restless.

The plot has several threads that intersect. Ana is an attractive young woman from Eastern Europe who has a very poor image of her own body. She sees herself as ugly and overweight, and has become increasingly obsessed with her physical appearance, to the extent where she even finds sex with her boyfriend distressing.

Her self-loathing is such that she allows herself to become engaged in a degrading sexual relationship with her boss Chris. Meanwhile Chris’ heavily pregnant wife, Helen, is terrified that she is becoming physically unattractive to her husband and that she will lose him as a result.

Into this already tangled up scenario, Holcroft introduces an increasingly sinister surgeon figure who is apparently raising funds to help treat children with facial injuries in conflict zones. Eventually all the characters end up consulting him and he offers one universal solution: the knife, or the Botox needle at the very least.

The play is concerned with honesty, in relationships and in life in general, and what happens when people stop telling the little lies they use to reassure one another and start going after the things they really want. Holcroft is not short of ideas, the play has an abundance of them, but it’s muddled in its execution and contains several awkward lurches in tone. What begins fairly naturalistically, with Ana splitting up with her boyfriend, becomes increasingly surreal and heightened as the play progresses. This cumulates in a bizarre scene in which Helen’s baby is extracted from her belly in a rather violent manner.

Zinnie Harris’s production is provocative in places and clearly designed to trigger a reaction, be it shock, repulsion, or nervous laughter, from the audience. But, as with the writing, there’s a lack of clarity of intention. The exploration of what happens when people are totally honest with one another is soon left behind in favour of a similarly brief dalliance with evolutionary psychology and the complexities of body image but neither of these subjects is satisfyingly explored. The whole thing has an ADHD quality and there’s a frustrating lack of cohesiveness, frustrating particularly because Holcroft is clearly an imaginative and ambitious writer.

The cast do well with the jolts and tilts of the script, particularly Claire Lams as Ana, who manages to ground the piece whenever she’s on stage and Steven McNicoll is also engaging as the lecherous boss who so quickly gives in to his primal appetites.

Reviewed for musicOMH

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