I don’t go to see plays. Which is kinda odd, given both my interest in other dramatic arts, such as film, and that back in my school days, I was a devoted member of the drama club, both writing and acting (the former was, truth be told, rather too informed by a devotion to the works of Douglas Adams, but since hardly anyone else was, I largely got away with it). However, that ended when I went to college, my storytelling and performing skills were used for D&D instead. In the 30-plus years since then, the number of plays (rather than musicals) I’ve attended can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. But Chris got us tickets to see this for my birthday, not least because it was a touring production by the National Theatre of Scotland which was coming through Phoenix. Certainly, it was an intriguing premise, and had a nice gimmick – but would that translate into actual entertainment, or would I be reduced to surreptitiously checking my phone every 10 minutes?
Well, the latter turned out not to be an option, because inside the Virginia Piper Theater is a complete dead-zone: I’m filing that one away for a future horror script. But I needn’t have worried, as the evening turned out to be thoroughly entertaining. The plot concerned a lifelong devotee of folk music, specifically the Border ballads from the South of Scotland. After attending a conference in Kelso, she’s trapped there by a blizzard, and the B&B where she ends up spending the night, turns out to be run by a very special proprietor: the Devil himself. How she gets there, and her subsequent struggle to escape from the very specific hell in which she finds herself trapped, is the core of the story.
That’s the premise. As for the gimmick? The audience was on the stage, alongside the performers, with the set being the pub in which Prudencia’s adventures begin. the aim being to recreate a ceilidh night. So, rather than sitting in rows of chairs facing the state, we were all sitting at tables, with (be still, my British heart) complete strangers, the actors making their way in and around the spectators. I can’t say it was a faultless depiction of a Scottish pub, not least because the gastronomic choices included Brie with grapes, as well as strawberries & chocolate sauce. Most Celtic venues I’ve been too, the selection goes no further than whether your crisps should be salt & vinegar or cheese ‘n’ onion. But since this was Scottsdale – the most affluent part of Phoenix – some accommodations clearly had to be made for the natives. Would have been nice if the cast had come back out after the show to hang with the audience in the “pub” – I guess lines of demarcation must still be drawn.
This unusual approach wasn’t without its downside. Our seats were facing away from the great bulk of the action, which led to a great deal of twisting and neck-turning, especially when coupled with the actors’ movements through the “pub”. At the interval, they did re-arrange the seating into the round, for the shift of location to the B&B, and that was considerably more comfortable. Also, it took a while before I realized the vacuum-cleaner like wheezing coming from one direction was actually an audience member with a very loud respiratory ailment, not a sardonic comment from another player. [Is it wrong of me to think some people are unsuited for live art?] One unexpected bonus: free whisky, for the tour was sponsored by Benromach distillery, which is particularly cool, since that was the distillery on the outskirts of Forres at which my father worked in the eighties. They now apparently make something called “organic whisky”, which one imagines would have to be preferable to the inorganic kind. Sorry, chemistry joke slipped in there somehow. Won’t let it happen again.
It was certainly very interactive: we were instructed to spend the time before the show began by tearing up paper napkins, which provided the “snow” for the blizzard, and were chided mildly when the request for “desultory applause” was met somewhat too enthusiastically. The cast were often, literally, right in your face – or at one point, right in one poor spectator’s lap – and there can’t be many plays where the audience is ordered to chant, football style, “Wan Colin Syme! Thair’s only wan Colin Syme!” The relevance of this may have gone over the heads of the locals, since chants don’t typically play much part at sporting events here. I did notice that, in this script, hell overlooks a CostCo carpark, and suspect this was changed for the American audience – but from what? Somerfield? Waitrose? On the other hand, I was likely the only person present, who would have understood the “1977 Tartan Army” reference, likely untranslatable [“1980 Miracle on Ice” might be close]
The small cast was a bit of a mixed blessing. They certainly were a multi-talented bunch, all capable not only of acting, but singing and playing musical instruments too, with no small degree of competence (don’t you just hate the multi-talented?). While mostly folk music, it was made clear early on that this wasn’t the “finger in the ear” brand of folk, and was all the better for it – there was also a cover of I Kissed a Girl, and Kylie Minogue played a significant part in proceedings too. On the other hand, the many parts required were occasionally a step too much. For example, there was one point where what was supposed to be four drunken lassies, were actually being played by three men and one woman. I didn’t quite realize the intent at the time, figuring instead that in the 15 years since I left Scotland, Kelso had perhaps become some kind of hotbed of transvestite culture.
However, when it worked, it was remarkably effective and the lack of Hollywood-style special effects [our paper napkin “snow” being about the pinnacle] mattered not one iota. The concept of the Devil owning a B&B is a glorious one, and the two actors used to portray Lucifer both nailed their aspects of the character. Even as the play moves from philosophical musings and debate over the nature and purpose of border ballads, to slapstick comedy, and a grandstanding finale (shown in the picture above) where Satan and the hero struggle for Prudencia, it still managed to retain a consistent tone, treading the thin line between taking itself too seriously and not seriously enough, with great agility. I could perhaps have done without the interpretive dance, but there’s a raw intensity to “live” theatre that you don’t get in other media, and being up close and personal to the action here, intensified that aspect.
The Scot in me feels obliged to say that the tickets weren’t cheap in comparison to other forms of entertainment, and that is likely to limit future attendance. I’ll risk $10 on a movie, book or band that may or may not be good, but for $39 a head, I generally want a bit more certainty. In this case, however, I didn’t feel in the least short-changed: it was a genuine “experience,” not just a gimmick, and one which will be remembered for a long time.