Sheila’s Island, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ***
Ten Things To Do Before You Die, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***
When the real world delivers such a shocking event as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it’s interesting to observe which songs, stories and plays stand up to the weight of those events, and which most emphatically do not. In another week, Tim Firth’s all-female version of his 1992 hit Neville’s Island, about four middle managers stranded on a Lake District island during an ill-fated team-building exercise, might have seemed like a harmless reflection on human folly, illuminated by decent performances from a cast that features well-known television faces Judy Flynn, Sara Crowe and Abigail Thaw, accompanied in Edinburgh this week by Tracy Collier, gallantly stepping up to replace a Covid-hit Rina Fatania.
In these times, though, I found myself almost unable to watch a show – on tour from the Yvonne Arnaud Theater in Guildford – that take such a dim view of human beings, often for slightly feeble comic effect. The play features four characters – bossy team leader Sheila, viciously sharp-tongued malcontent Denise, fragile religious type Fay, and absurdly over-equipped Julie – with whom you wouldn’t want to spend half an hour in a pub, far less a whole evening in the theatre; and for 48 hours on their bleak island, they snipe at one another, tell lies that help no-one, and – for no legible reason – pussy-foot for ages around the question of exactly why Fay’s mental health is so vulnerable, while trying to extract laughs by dismissing her as “dotty”, in a way that seems thoroughly out of time.
Perhaps some of the problem lies in Firth’s feminization of the story. Back in 1992, he portrayed these character traits as aspects of “toxic masculinity”, with the implication that there was a better, more female-influenced world elsewhere. Now, it seems that all the world – male, female or other – is equally petty, competitive, and cruel, making his vision of him yet more depressing. Small wonder that lovely Sara Crowe, as the victim Fay, seems better able to bond with the audience than the other cast members; in a show that sells humanity short at the very moment when we most need to ditch the cynicism and self-absorption, and start believing in our ability to defend each other and the values that matter, before it’s too late.
Dani Heron’s new Play, Pie And Pint show Ten Things To Do Before You Die, by contrast, dives to the heart of what matters in life from the outset, when we learn that the central character – Claire, played by Dani Heron herself – is dying from brain cancer, at the age of only 29. Structurally, Heron’s 50 minute play becomes seriously bogged down in a single dramatic set-up, in that Claire can never bring herself to tell anyone about her illness – not family, work colleagues, or even her former fiancé – except a floating local barmaid, played by the wonderful Julie Wilson Nimmo; a situation which, however believable, paralyzes the play’s dramatic development, and eventually becomes repetitive.
Some of the writing around Claire’s “bucket list”, though – as she tries to tick off a few final experiences, including a dope-hazed solo visit to Amsterdam, and a bit of mindless casual sex – is funny, luminous and poignant, charting her own gradual acceptance of the appalling situation she faces; and in the end, there’s a wise and powerful sense of gratitude, despite everything, for the privilege of having been alive at all, in a world of such pain, and such laughter and beauty.
Sheila’s Island is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until 5 March; Ten Things To Do Before You Die is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 5 March, and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 8-12 March
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