Picture if you will the following Scene One. A man enters looking as if he is going to announce a cast illness and instead takes up position stage right and shuffles his feet in a pile of brown soil. Small child in audience enquires what he's doing. Man: “I'm recalibrating my Scottishness.” And things pretty much go downhill from this unpromising beginning.
This show follows a familiar, and not noticeably successful, International Festival theatre formula. Buy in a company who've won awards on the Fringe and hope for similar success. The company here is the American group the TEAM, with whom this was my first encounter. In this case, a further element is added, by having them collaborate with the National Theatre of Scotland, whose record at the EIF is uneven. The result is one of the most painfully laboured pieces of theatre it has been my misfortune recently to encounter.
The main responsibility for this lies with the five people who have together devised the really terrible script. These are the three performers (Jessica Almasy, Brian Ferguson and Sandy Grierson) and the director and associate director (Rachel Chavkin and Davey Anderson). In theory the show is telling the story of two Scotsmen (Brian and Iain) and a West Virginian (Red) who meet under opaque circumstances and pal up for poorly contrived reasons. The script fails to make any of the three into meaningful, well-drawn, characters. Instead, they become ciphers for simplistic representations of Scottish and American identity. Nor does the show have sufficient in the way of narrative drive or fresh ideas. In one of several hopelessly clichéd moments the three embark on an unconvincing road trip into the Scottish Highlands which subsequently morphs into a fantasy sequence in West Virginia. Much of this is dominated by simplistic retellings of bits of Scottish and American history, culminating in a fulmination against environmental destruction in West Virginia – I learnt more about the latter from a recent article in the New Yorker than I got from this play. The play also suffers from a tendency to lecture – fatal here as in nearly all the other similar dramatic attempts at such a thing I've sat through. Relationships and characterisations remain shallow pretty much throughout.
One of the most maddening things about all this is that there are points of interest which had real dramatic potential. The most obvious to me was the question of the Scotsman leaving to work in London – what does this do to his identity as a Scotsman, to his relation to the land of his birth? The infuriating thing is that the play is incapable of effective examination of this instead indulging in simplistic and unconvincing condemnation of the character for that decision. Neither in this, nor anything else, did the play tell me anything on its chosen issues that I could not have found out more simply and clearly from other sources – though Nationalists may well be pleased by the positive, upbeat (and not terribly convincing) monologue with which the play finally concludes.
The piece also suffers from familiar vices of new plays. Not knowing how to start may be an unusual problem, not knowing how to stop I have seen too many times before. Equally annoyingly, it makes unoriginal self-referential points about the fact it is a play. These tend only to highlight its shortcomings – when one of the men remarks (with about ten minutes to go) that “We should have cut it there” the only answer is yes, you absolutely should.
The performances of the trio of actors/writers do the best they can with this self-devised material, but none of them sufficiently transcends its limitations. The music, supplied by American group the Bengsons (war costumed with some native American elements for unclear reasons), is pleasant enough to listen to but suffers from a lyrical tendency to hit the listener over the head with points already established, and some of the singing is uneven. There is nothing notable about the limited set. Finally, this is yet another show that seriously outstays its welcome – running at an unjustified 1hr 50 mins without interval.
No doubt this collaboration looked like it had real potential on paper. Sadly, and primarily owing to the painfully bad script, it is a pretty complete failure. To be avoided.