Three women, on a tiny stage, conjure mighty powerful images out of spare and fluid acting and an astonishing script. Emma Geliot goes to The Other Room at Porters, Cardiff.
First of all, let’s get the pronunciation right – the devil, in this fiercesome performance, was in the detail after all – Seanmhair is said as shen-a-var, and is Scots Gaelic for grandmother. It also sounds very similar to the central character’s full name – Jennifer – shortened to Jenny. What’s your name, Jenny?” Things will get awkward if I try and ascribe roles to particular actors, for reasons that I hope will soon become apparent.
This is the story of a rich girl and a poor lad from the 1950s tenements of Edinburgh. But it’s not a linear narrative, in fact it starts backwards, in the present, when a burning love is reduced to lentils everywhere and fantasies about kebabs. But then it threads backwards, hacks forwards. There are big reveals and slow exposures, with dialogue so rich in places that it comes as a shock to realise that the stage is still the same – dark, brick walls, leaning in to further intensify the claustrophobia of a few square meters of stage. Two fluorescent tubes flash in an arrowed arch, as the drama intensifies, or as time tilts.
Three actors shape shift and skim characters between themselves as seamlessly as a flat pebble across a millpond, sometimes at dizzying speed and with incredible clarity. Sian Howard, Hannah McPake and Molly Vevers are a force to be reckoned with, morphing character with nothing but a slight gesture, so freighted with personality that this shape-shifting is utterly plausible. There are no fancy costume changes, no props (apart from a slightly puzzling pig’s head), this is pure acting, backed up with adroit direction (from Kate Wasserberg), set, lighting and sound design and deftly choreographed movement. There are moments when the three actors become one entity as they snap together to provide their own Greek Chorus (“Glint, glint, glint”, “glimmer, glimmer, glimmer”, “crack, crack, crack”). Then they pull away to become parents, mean schoolgirls, nanny, grandmother and the boy and the girl – Tommy and Jenny.
Hywel John’s script is as rich as a novel in the imagery it mines. With a pen as spare and sharp as a caricaturist ‘s the scene is set, the character’s defined. A single line takes the mind above the dark brickwork to a sky wheeling with birds, or to a shriveled lover, as bedraggled as a rain-washed sparrow, old and depleted and stooped in a bath tub.
The Other Room is minuscule – sitting in the front row, I can see dental detail. There is no wiggle room for mistakes, no fudging with fumbled gesture or facial gurning. I want to pick holes, because a gushing of praise moves no one forward, but there is little to dislike. So early in the run (it’s the third performance) I can allow a few heartbeat pauses, a few tiny movements that don’t quite convince, although I feel churlish to note these at all. They’ll come out in the wash. The script takes the action close to the edge of incoherence as the drama intensifies into a chaos of revelations and irrevocable actions as it draws to a close. Again, not to the point where I can’t forgive, but I had to do a bit of post-performance processing as my brain caught up with the full-throttle dramatic crescendo. I really could have done without the pig’s head, when so much else had been so eloquently said with the flick of a wrist or the twist of a lip, but this really is minor stuff.
You will note that I’ve slithered past the story, with good reason – I want you to see this for yourselves. All I’ll say is that the first dark thing, the thing that you think the play turns on, is not the last. Not by a long chalk. The language is pithy, so leave those with a nervous disposition at home. But take yourself along to Porter’s, and do it soon.
Seanmhair is part of the Outliers season at The Other Room at Porter’s. It runs to 01.04.2017
All photographs: Aenne Pallasca Courtesy of The Other Room
From top: Molly Vevers; Centre: (l,r, bottom) Molly Vevers, Hannah McPake, Sian Howard
Bottom: Molly McPake