The National Theatre of Scotland
Directed by Wils Wilson
Composer and musical director Alasdair Macrae
With Annie Grace, Melody Grove, Alasdair Macrae, Paul McCole and David McKay
Little Creatures Loft and The Melbourne Hotel until February 24 (waiting list only)
Last year you could still get a ticket to The National Theatre of Scotland’s pulverising Beautiful Burnout deep into the season. No such luck this time. The company’s third visit to the Perth Festival, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, already has a waiting list, and it’s going to get very, very long.
The rush is, in part, because of the company’s well-earned reputation here, and because the festival’s publicity promised “rip-roaring action” set, and performed, in a bar, and that’s bound to pull Perth punters.
The good news, for those of you holding tickets, is that Prudencia Hart delivers all that’s promised for it, and a whole lot besides.
The only problem I have writing about it is an ethical one. It takes such an exquisitely diabolical turn just before interval that I think you’re entitled to let it catch you by surprise. So, no spoiler alert needed ahead.
Prudencia Hart (the wide-eyed, wonderful Melody Grove) is an academic from Edinburgh, whose field is Scottish border ballads, and especially how they represent the Underworld. She’s attending a symposium at Kelso, around 70km south of the capital. It’s a quick drive down, a short presentation, a lunch (the main thing she’s looking forward to) and back home in the evening. Her fellow presenters, especially the swaggering Colin Syme (Paul McCole), are hostile and dismissive of her old-fashioned approach to the subject, her presentation is a disaster and, to cap it all off, her car is buried in a snowstorm and she’s stranded for the night.
She ends up at a grotty pub with Colin, who wants to screw her in any way he can. Things only get worse (for her, not us) as the pub’s folk night turns to karaoke to bacchanal – one audience member will not soon forget the attention he got from a horny Annie Grace – and Prudencia escapes into the night to find Goodman’s Field, a B & B she’s booked into. Alone in the dark, she wanders the deserted streets until she’s rescued by Nick (David McKay), the B & B’s owner, who leads her to her accommodation. Strange that he leaves no footprints in the snow…
That’s all you get from me. The rest of Prudencia’s tale, which plays out over the ensuing 4,000 or so years, is a border ballad of its own, powered by the rhyming couplets in which David Greig has written it (don’t be put off – it’s devilishly funny, and, besides, verse is the ukulele of cool playwriting these days). The show’s five cast members (the fifth, Alasdair Macrae, is also its composer and musical director) double as the band, and they play up an inferno, with tunes from ancient lays to Katy Perry and, gloriously, our Kylie.
The stagecraft, marshalled by director Wils Wilson, is exuberant and seamless throughout; furniture moves constantly, tables are cleared for the cast to leap on, the whole room is transformed during interval (with everyone still in the room) from a cabaret floor plan to traverse staging without us even noticing.
The cast is exceptional without exception, Grove and McKay spellbinding in the long contest between them that dominates the second half. There’s plenty of unthreatening audience participation (I’m sure even Grace’s prey enjoyed himself), lots of singing (“One Colin Syme/ There’s only one Colin Syme/One Colin Sigh-eyem…), some terrible sandwiches at interval, much to think about and much, much laughter.
This, folks, is one hell of a show!