Saturday, August 28, 2010

Edinburgh: Another Someone at the Bedlam

My first inclination, when I discover that a show claims to be “about happiness”, is to bolt, to flee. But I’m ever so glad I didn’t give into the urge because, tangled and messy as it is, this is one of the more uplifting and exciting productions on this year’s Fringe.

The central story is not unfamiliar. Holly is a recent law graduate with ambitions to be a barrister. When she moves into a new flat she is initially finds her neighbours, Alicia and Jim, somewhat off-putting but becomes friends - of sorts - with them anyway.

Alicia convinces Jim and Holly to go on a date and they click, soon becoming a couple. But while Holly equates happiness with ambition and success, Jim is content where he is, working as a waiter, seeing where life takes him. This is too big a hurdle for Holly and they split.

Music and dance ripple through the entire production. It’s an intensely physical piece. The performers tumble and roll and wrestle, wrapped in one another, supporting each other’s weight and then springing apart. The music is supplied live by musician Becky Wilkie, who also acts as an occasional narrator and supplier of wry asides about the characters. As Holly’s emotional life is opened up to the audience the piece becomes more dreamlike and opaque, with her caught in a forest of coloured silk dressed in a faded pink princess dress. It’s an evocative sequence that captures the wonder of childhood without being heavy-handed.

Another Someone is the work of Leeds-based dance theatre company RashDash. They made their Edinburgh debut at last year’s Fringe with a piece called The Honeymoon, a show that while full of energy was unable to sustain itself; this new work, whilst maintaining a clear sense of their identity as a company, shows a marked improvement in terms of structure and story-telling.

It’s still a flawed work. They never quite succeed in making all the elements knit together seamlessly – it’s still possible to see the joins – and the more conventional scenes between Holly, Jim and Alicia suffer from a lack of originality when placed besides the lively dance sequences. Yet this scene-setting is necessary and they grasp that. This piece connects with the audience in a way The Honeymoon never quite managed.

The trio of actors, Abbi Greenland, Helen Goalen and Marc Graham, are convincing as their characters yet also adept at the more physical scenes, and though it sometimes stumbles, the whole piece ends on a percussive high. It also shows clear evidence of a company evolving in skill and confidence in a way that is immensely pleasing to see.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Edinburgh: My Romantic History at the Traverse

Romantic comedy is not the simplest of genres to pull off. The twin pits of cliché and sentimentality are all too easy to tumble into. D.C Jackson’s new play avoids both of these traps; his is a romantic comedy minus most of the romance, a self-styled 'non-rom-com.'

Tom and Amy work in the same anonymous office as one another. One night, following one too many after work drinks, they fall into bed together. There was no real attraction, no real spark - just too much wine. Their resulting relationship is awkward, unplanned and destined to end messily.

Neither of them likes the other much but for various reasons they end up stuck together, maintaining a façade of a relationship. Tom desperately tries to wriggle his way out of it, but she doesn’t seem to get the hint, even when she catches him having a sly wank in her bed.

Jackson’s protagonists are ordinary, flawed individuals whose motivations are questionable at best; their relationship is about as far away from star-crossed as you can get. Both are hung up on the ghosts of partners past, clinging to playground crushes and the intensity of that first, failed love even as they hurtle into their thirties.

The first half of the play is presented from Tom’s point of view but Jackson switches things at the midway point, depicting the same events from Amy’s perspective. This is a canny way of demonstrating the different ways men and women read certain situations and behaviour; it also eventually allows for a degree of emotional depth that had been previously lacking. Iain Robertson and Alison O’Donnell do a good job of making their characters rounded and sympathetic, despite some fairly objectionable behaviour on Tom’s part and the fact that, initially at least, Amy is only using him to prove a point to her colleague.

Lyndsey Turner’s production, created by Sheffield Theatres in collaboration with the Bush Theatre, never reaches the same heights of wit and invention as David Greig’s Midsummer, which played in the same space last year; it's occasionally crass in tone (one too many references to pink sick and wanking) and it does get repetitious well before the end, but it contains much to enjoy and manages to reflect a little on disappointment and loneliness before reaching its touching and downbeat conclusion.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Edinburgh: Teenage Riot at the Traverse

A teenage boy is explaining, in some detail and with illustrative finger gestures, his technique for getting a girl aroused. He speaks with an air of confidence and experience, cocky and self-assured, imparting his expertise. Yet as soon as he is finished, his assembled adolescent audience surround him, niggling, pinching and pummelling him, like pack animals turning on one of their own.

This scene forms part of the latest work from the experimental Flemish theatre company Ontroerend Goed. Their previous productions include the astonishing Smile Off Your Face and Internal, two pieces that interrogated ideas of intimacy and confession, that invited the audience to open themselves up and then toyed with what they found there.

The company, together with Kopergietery Youth Theatre, were also responsible for Once and for All We’re Going to Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen, a show with an all-teenage cast that was boisterous and chaotic, raucous playground stuff, but beneath the anarchic veneer, there was a strict sense of order, of repetition and control.

Director Alexander Devriendt intended Teenage Riot, the second collaboration with Kopergietery, to focus on the elements of adolescence that Once and for All was less concerned with, the anger, focused and unfocused, the cruelty, the burden of expectation, the frustration implicit in being not quite an adult, yet no longer a child.

A cube sits centre stage and it is within this cube that most of the action takes place. For much of time, the teenage performers stay inside the box while images are projected on the front. Sometimes these are live, at other times pre-recorded. Only occasionally do the performers emerge, tumbling out of side doors or clambering up on to the roof. Meanwhile, the video verges on the endoscopic, probing folds of skin, zooming in on eyes and groins, examining zits, but it’s also a barrier between the audience and performers. Intentionally perhaps, it makes it difficult to connect and engage with what the cast are saying, widening the gap between 'us' – parents, adults, audience members – and 'them.'

The box acts as a stand-in for the fortress that is the adolescent bedroom – it allows them greater freedom to be aggressive, explicit, silly, intimate. It is also, more symbolically, a blank, white space onto which images are projected, entirely fitting in the broader context of the production.

Teenage Riot is a more shapeless piece than its predecessor, or at least gives the appearance of being so – more episodic, fluctuating. Some of what it presents is surprisingly predictable – the pounding music and graffiti expletives, the teenagers explaining their body image worries, their frustrations expressed physically as well as verbally.

And while it may have been devised with considerable input from its young cast and entirely of their ideas, it is also narrower in its vision than Once and for All. For one thing, the use of adolescents who are confident enough to join a theatre group and comfortable with the idea of performance has an inevitable self-limiting effect. This is one group of voices, a lone fluttering flag, and the introverted, unpopular and socially awkward are notable by their absence.

While the repeated use of video is understandable, providing as it does a safe space for expression, a protective fence, it becomes gratingly anti-theatrical after a while, threatening to obliterate the few genuine moments of connection, moments in which the cast appear with shoulders slumping under adult expectation and disappointment, their faces turned briefly towards the future. But this only happens towards the end of the production and can’t quite combat the show’s overriding air of bleakness.

The final (filmed) moments are both hopeful and defiant, but they come too late in a piece that is likely to divide its audience – and not just by age, but also in terms of those who are wowed by its anti-theatre, mid-finger aloft stance and those who find it a bit forced and ridiculous.

Slightly modified version of a review for The Stage

Monday, August 23, 2010

Edinburgh: Sub Rosa at Hill Street Theatre

Edinburgh is a city where the ghosts float close to the surface. All that old stone, those dark, descending alleys and subterranean chambers; it’s easy to let one’s imagination off the hook and this is something David Leddy’s bloody Victorian yarn taps into.

Sub Rosa actually began life in the dark nooks and crannies of Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, but it has been successfully transplanted to a new and suitably Gothic space in Edinburgh’s New Town.

The Lodge of Edinburgh, which doubles as the Hill Street Theatre during the Fringe, is a Masonic Hall and the building is full of atmospheric details: star-slatted ceilings, religious paintings and oak panelled walls.

The audience move from room to room, led by black-clad ushers (who are more than just body-movers and do some subtle scene-setting before they let people into the building). In each space the audience encounter a new character and, chapter by chapter, the grisly story of Flora McIvor, music hall chorus girl, is allowed to unfold. A Strong Man, a sinister Wig Master, a pair of gin-sodden ‘Siamese Twins’ who might be dead, a gentlewoman of ‘lenient virtue’, each takes their turn to describe the next cruel set of events to befall young Flora at the hands of Mr Hunter, the diabolical manager of the Winter Palace.

The music hall world in which they live is dark as a blood stain, cracked and black, and their story is replete with concealed corpses, snapped bones, forced miscarriage and the fog of opium, becoming increasingly grisly in tone with each new twist. The building has been wonderfully utilised; it almost seems to groan as the audience ascends the stairs. Much attention has been given to the props, the small details: the dusty hairpieces and hanging gowns in the Wig Master’s workshop, the scent of lavender balm in the Strong Man’s room.

Certain elements of the macabre narrative appear to have been tweaked to make it better suited to the new space, but the atmosphere generated is considerable. It’s not as immersive as a piece by a company like Punchdrunk; it remains a distinct series of scenes rather than plunging you into a completely realised world, yet the building itself ensures a sense of cohesiveness. The efforts of the cast are also considerable, each actor shaping their segment and connecting with the audience. What lets the piece down, if only slightly, is the writing’s constant tilt towards the horrific.

By setting its sights so firmly on the audience’s stomach rather than on their heart or their head, by eschewing subtlety and allusion and diving directly into a pool of gore and viscera, it’s not nearly as unsettling as it might be. It’s telling that the most unnerving moment is the final vertiginous descent into the cool, moonlit car park and the last look back up at the glinting building.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Edinburgh: Hot Mess at Hawke and Hunter

Ella Hickson’s latest play for the fringe, her third, has a mythical quality.

Polo and Twitch are twins, but they only have one heart between them. Twitch loves too much, Polo not enough. They live on a tiny island, five miles by two, which is slowly being lost to the sea.

Twitch leaves a mark on very man she desires: a scar, a scald, torn skin. She believes love should last, that it should leave an indelible stain. This is in direct contrast to Polo’s childhood friend Jax, who gets a thrill from casual sex. She likes the anonymity of it, the adrenaline surge, and takes comfort in the knowledge that she doesn’t have to see them again if she chooses not to; if they ask for her phone number, she declines to give it.

Polo has returned to the island for his (and Twitch’s) birthday, having left, escaped; during his time away Twitch has met and fallen for Billy, a charming American, and only the second man she has allowed herself to become physically involved with. The four of them, Polo, Twitch, Billy and Jax, head out to a nightclub, the site of many a sexual conquest and drunken stumble, a scene of elation and humiliation fused. There is drink, there is dancing; there is an ill-advised homage to the late Patrick Swayze.

Staged in a subterranean section of Edinburgh nightclub Hawke and Hunter, with strips of neon imbedded in the floor and music supplied by a DJ, this is a confident production with something to say, about sex and love and the space in between. Hickson is interested in how people negotiate their relationships, sexual or otherwise, in what they’re looking for, what they want from one another.

The play is more poetic in voice than its predecessor. The compelling Precious Little Talent was a more naturalistic piece and it’s clear that Hickson is pushing herself stylistically. She’s helped by a strong cast, all familiar faces from her debut, Eight. Gwendolen Chatfield and Michael Whitham play the twins, her open and needy, him prim and stiff, arch-eyebrowed. Kerri Hall is particularly memorable as the brash Jax, teetering on neon pink heels, vulnerability concealed by an abundance curves and Lycra and confidence; Solomon Mousley completes the quartet with an understated turn as Billy.

For all its many strengths this feels like a play with a split personality, stubbornly tugging in two different directions. It seems to be trying to be both an interrogation of contemporary sexual mores and a more lyrical and poetic piece about human connection.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Edinburgh: Our Share of Tomorrow at the Pleasance Courtyard

Daniel Sherer’s debut play is a layered piece of writing that only reveals itself slowly. Cleo, a young Irish girl, is on a journey, driven by need. Her mother has just passed away and she’s searching for the father she has never known. She’s not seeking reunion or rescue, but it’s important to her that she meets him.

Tom is a quiet, reclusive type, a man still hung up on Grace, the girl he once loved fifteen years ago. When he first sees Cleo coming towards him on the beach he recognises her, but only because he can see her mother’s face in hers. Both people have holes in their lives that the other cannot fill. But that doesn’t stop them from longing.

Following the loss of her mother, Cleo’s only anchor in the world is John, an older man, ex-army type, divorced with a teenage daughter who he no longer speaks to or sees. He’s drawn to Cleo, wanting to protect her, to shield her from a world he views as hostile. John is instinctively wary of Tom, threatened, aggressive. The two men clash.

Sherer takes his time shaping this triangle of relationships. Following an evocative opening in which Tom stands stripped to the waist and lashed to his boat by rope, awaiting the waves, the play begins with the pivotal meeting between Tom and Cleo before flashing backwards and forwards to flesh out the characters.

The writing is subtle and shaded. Sherer’s play is one of considerable emotional charge and he’s not shy of ambiguity; he seems more interested in portraying the intensity of grief and the human need for connection than in spelling things out for his audience. He doesn’t, for example, ever reveal how Grace died, it’s enough to learn that it was not swift, nor was it easy; it’s also not really ever explained how Cleo came to be so entirely by herself or how long she’s known where to find her father. He’s confident enough as a writer to leave some questions unanswered.

It helps that the cast are capable. As Cleo, Tamsin Joanna Kennard is spirited and clear in intention; she’s a girl who’s been hardened by life and loss but, despite her shell, she is also still vulnerable and confused. Toby Sawyer is rather too young to fully convince as John, but his complex feelings towards Cleo are compelling portrayed, and Jot Davies is also engaging as the rather innocent and hopeful Tom, a man trapped in time, still dreaming of a girl from his past.

Though the production, by theatre company Real Circumstance, is not overtly physical, the use or movement and music add to the texture of the piece and the sequence in which the cast sing is skilfully handled and very atmospheric. The coastal setting is simply but effectively evoked through lengths of rope and planks of wood, and a softly illuminated backdrop manages to conjure both the setting sun and the weaving of waves.

For all it does well the production can be frustrating. Sherer’s ellipitical approach makes it difficult to get a grip on the characters and, while this may be intentional, the balance between what is revealed and what remains in shadow feels a little off.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Edinburgh: You're Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy at the Pleasance Courtyard

Amid the clapping and cheering at the end of Caroline Horton’s one woman show there were a good number of barely suppressed sniffs and sobs - and when the house lights lifted it was possible to make out many people whose eyes were still glassy with tears or who were dabbing away at damp cheeks.

Horton gave a memorable performance at last year’s Fringe, in a play called Almost Ten in which she convincingly played a young girl; it was a compelling performance, her mannerisms, posture, and method of expression all incredibly well-judged.

Her new piece is even more accomplished. You’re Not Like the Other Girls Chrissy is inspired by the life of her grandmother, Christiane, an exuberant French woman who falls for an English teacher just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Her story begins at the Gare du Nord; the war is nearing its end and she can finally leave occupied France to be reunited with the man she hasn’t seen in five years. Using this as a dramatic springboard, Christiane then recounts the details of their first meeting, their hesitant flirtation, his proposal and the agony and uncertainty of their long separation.

Horton is not the most subtle of performers; her approach is broad and physical – and utterly captivating with it. She clatters into the room at the start, laden with suitcases, and launches into an unstoppable flow of French. Peering through a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles, with a fur hat perched on her head like a coiled white cat, she quickly develops a rapport with the audience, addressing them directly, laughing and making little jokes. Yet what begins as caricature gradually develops into a far more rounded portrayal. Christiane is an excitable, funny, determined woman, full of life. She’s also spiky and a little bit aggressive and demanding (she swaps her pearl engagement ring for diamond one because she is told pearls are unlucky). Horton totally immerses herself in the role and becomes so caught up in things that, at one point, she dislodges a light fitting from the ceiling while describing a game of tennis (with appropriate actions).

The suitcases which serve as her only props are inventively utilised, each one opening to reveal some scene-setting detail, a string of balloons, a Paris skyline, a bed of flowers. It’s not the most original of devices, but it so completely fits the material, it’s so charmingly executed, that it hardly matters.

This typifies the appeal of this deeply endearing piece. There is warmth and humour in every detail. It’s hard not to melt a little and most people in the audience had already surrendered themselves even before the moving, uplifting and beautifully executed conclusion.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Edinburgh: Keepers at the Pleasance Courtyard

Outside in the Pleasance Courtyard the weather is suitably biblical, the sky grim, the rain falling in torrents. This onslaught of water is a good scene-setter for the Plasticine Men’s nuanced two-hander.

Keepers is a piece of considerable charm. Set in the early 19th century, it concerns two lighthouse keepers, both called Thomas, and their life of routine and isolation. They are the men who keep the light shining and help steer ships away from the rocks. It is vital work, life or death, and the might of the sea, its sheer animal force, is very well-conveyed; the sea is a thing to be feared and respected – it dominates their lives.

One Thomas is fastidious and duty-orientated, while the other is dreamier and romantic, more easily distracted. He’s endearingly excited by his surroundings and delighted by the sight of birds; he pays little heed to the local superstitions about the souls of men lost at sea. Their relationship is fractious but not hostile and, by its very nature, intimate; they need one another.

This is small show in many ways, but not a thin one. Using only a few props – a couple of chairs, a ladder – the performers conjure up the world of the lighthouse completely. The attention to detail is beautiful and the combination of mime and live sound effects are so convincing that at times it almost tricks the senses into believing that there is glass in the windows, that there are vast waves crashing against the walls.

Based on a true story of the events at Smalls Lighthouse in Pembrokeshire (an incident that led to a new policy being introduced about the manning of lighthouses), the narrative is fragmented and occasionally opaque, but the tragic conclusion, when it comes, is genuinely unsettling. The physicality of Martin Bonger and Fionn Gill’s performances is a delight and care has clearly been taken over their every movement.

This is a delicate, graceful piece of theatre, the subtleties of which occasionally get swallowed up by the venue. Yet what the piece lacks in narrative thrust and dramatic clarity, it more than makes up for in atmosphere and there is something incredibly satisfying about seeing a world, albeit a small one, so wholly realised.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Edinburgh: It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later at the Traverse

Daniel Kitson’s storytelling shows have become something of an Edinburgh fixture, a part of the fabric of the fringe. This year he’s taken on the 10am slot at the Traverse, but while his audience may begin bleary they are soon rapt – and stay that way.

It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later is a beautifully constructed piece, an exercise in connection. Kitson, thickly bearded and a bit out of breath, stands on a gleaming stage amid a constellation of light bulbs and begins to tell a story; no, strike that, two stories. Two lives.

Kitson introduces his audience to William Rivington and Caroline Carpenter, two people who’s lives will intersect briefly though they never really meet, for while this is a show that deals in matters of love, it is not a love story. It is a show about moments. The moments that make up a life, the moments of joy, the moments of tragedy, but just as importantly, all the moments on the spectrum in between, all the moments that tumble by unremarked upon.

It’s a lovingly detailed piece of writing. Skipping backwards and forwards in time, covering all points between birth and death, Kitson brings Caroline and William to life. The everyday moments are given as much attention as the pivotal – a new hair cut, a shared breakfast, a staring child on a bus. As each moment passes one light bulb fades and another comes to life and Kitson weaves his way through the field of stars.

Resisting the urge to act things out, to supply voices, actions, instead he contents himself with just telling the stories and this is more than enough to hold the audience’s attention. For ninety minutes he never fumbles, he shapes and sculpts these two people until they are near enough on stage with him. Within their stories are moments of love and loss; Caroline marries but William, after one failed relationship (and one spectacularly botched date) resigns himself to a life of fairly contented solitude. Some moments are piercing in their simplicity: Caroline, struggling in the rain with her new baby, scared and sodden, is reassured by a kind, elderly woman: “it’s normal.”

Within this rich narrative tapestry there are repetitions, phrases and situations that are returned to with added resonance. And while it’s often bittersweet, often deeply touching, it is also very funny in places, punctuated by some lovely comic moments. The writing is often gently poetic and Kitson’s calm, measured delivery is, in its way, compelling. A truly wonderful show.

Reviewed for musicOMH

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Edinburgh: Operation Greenfield at Zoo Roxy

One of the more pleasing activities at last year’s festival was watching Little Bulb, then resident at the Forest Fringe, create and shape their endearingly raucous musical, Sporadical. With its cardboard props, embracive energy and fable-like quality, it was an endearing piece, well suited to the space.

The company’s latest offering, Operation Greenfield is, comparatively at least, a tighter affair that has more in common with their delightful debut piece, Crocosmia. While that show explored what it was to be a child suddenly faced with great loss and contained some memorable Battenberg puppetry, their new show is bigger in scope and the characters older, teenagers.

Set in Stokley, a quiet middle England village at some point in the mid-1990s, it follows a quartet of Christian teenagers as they prepare for their local talent show. Their chosen song is based on the story of the Annunciation, with lyrics supplied by the only Catholic member of the group.

The level of invention has not dipped and, as with Sporadical, the piece is studded with songs, including a strange and potent sequence when the cast wear matching Carmen Miranda masks. With a collection of props including several stepladders, a pair of fluffy angel wings and a large cardboard Elvis, the cast manage to evoke all manner of adolescent awkwardness and longing. Their attention to detail is lovely: the little glances, the shifting allegiances, the first stuttering flutter of friendship, the worry of not quite fitting in.

This is a more honed production than Sporadical, more precise in execution. But there’s also a sense that the company don’t always know where to stop, where to draw the line and leave things be. By the time their last show had reached BAC, their continual tweaks and additions had actually begun to subtract from the considerable original charm of the piece and here again there is a sense of a company adding layer upon layer upon layer, overworking things. Though it contains moments that are truly delightful it also feels overlong at ninety minutes in length. Their whimsical, eye-wide approach is refreshing in smaller doses but here they overplay their hand and some of the magic is lost.

Reviewed for musicOMH

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

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Edinburgh: The Girl in the Yellow Dress at the Traverse

Craig Higginson’s previous play, the acclaimed Dream of the Dog, dealt elegantly and intelligently with the complex past and present of his native South Africa. His latest play, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, a co-production between Glasgow’ Citizens Theatre, Newcastle’s Live Theatre and South Africa’s Market Theatre, is narrower in focus, concentrating on the increasingly intense and co-dependent relationship between an attractive young English teacher and her student.

Celia, the teacher, is in her late twenties and is clearly more than comfortably off, living on her own in a stylish, minimalist Parisian apartment. Her student, Pierre, is an affable, young French Congolese man who is keen to improve his English.

From the start it is apparent that Pierre has not sought her out solely for tuition. His interest in her runs deeper, to the point where he admits to having shadowed her in the streets and once followed her all the way to the Sacre Coeur. This both unnerves and excites her. Celia’s world is a measured one; she is cautious and accustomed to being in control, but she is also curious and is attracted to the idea of who she wants Pierre to be, something exotic, something other.

Director Malcolm Purkey is successful in creating a tense, somewhat heightened atmosphere that helps coast over some of the play’s more implausible lurches in tone. Celia is both attracted to and wary of her student. Pierre is charming and charismatic but also single-minded in his desire. Both appear to have deep reservoirs of secrets. Celia has a difficult and damaging relationship with her brother and Pierre tells stories about his refugee past.

Higginson’s play uses this relationship to explore the potency of language: how it gives people the means to communicate and connect, to express themselves but also to expose themselves, to tell stories about who they are and who they might be. It also uses the couple’s interactions to reflect on how class and race can still create walls between people, though it does this less deftly.

Played out in five acts, the writing is, at least in the initial encounters between student and teacher, tight and charged but it goes off the boil considerably once their relationship becomes more overtly sexual. The whole set up feels somewhat forced from the start and in the end it’s down to the cast that keep things on track. Both performances are strong with Marianne Oldham, in particular, really shining as the beautifully brittle Celia. She moves seamlessly from a state of composure and control to one of utter exposure, crouching before him, raw and trembling on the floor. As Pierre Nat Ramabulana is engaging and charming yet there is something appealingly ambiguous about him; both convey a strong sense of inner contradiction, the potential that something within them might at any time snap.

Reviewed for musicOMH