The Traverse kicks off its 50th anniversary year with a thrilling programme of miniature plays, while Oran Mor builds on its reputation for showcasing new work too
Plays For Edinburgh
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
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Only The Lonely
Oran Mor, Glasgow
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IT WAS 50 years ago this month that the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh first opened its doors. The date was 2 January 1963, the place was James Court off the Lawnmarket, and the plays – courtesy of publisher and committee member John Calder – were Sartre’s Huis Clos, and Fernando Arrabal’s Orisons, both in new English versions.
Over the 50 years of the Traverse’s life, there have been two moves to bigger and better buildings, and subtly shifting definitions of the theatre’s role; it began with a determination to perform avant-garde European work which was being given the cold shoulder by British theatre managements, but rapidly developed into a commitment to staging completely new work by new writers, often based in Scotland.
As the Traverse’s slogan for this year’s golden celebration suggests, though, it has always been a theatre about the future rather than the past. “Fifty Years Of New” is the phrase; and there can be few theatres in the world which have done more to earn such a decisive reputation for investment in the future, with almost every significant Scottish playwright of the last half-century, from Stanley Eveling to Jo Clifford, David Greig and Morna Pearson, owing part or all of their early fame to the Traverse, and to the international platform it offers.
So it seems both appropriate and thrilling that the theatre’s current artistic director, Orla O’Loughlin, should have decided to begin the year of celebration by throwing open the door of the Traverse to a group of 50 brand-new playwrights, whose work has barely been produced on stage before. The brief, sent out far and wide, was to write a 500-word Play For Edinburgh; the project is jointly sponsored by Edinburgh City Council. The response was huge, with over 600 entries, from which 50 playwrights were chosen; and last weekend, in two heroic and fascinating evenings of theatre, all 50 mini-plays were performed one after the other, over three and a half hours, by an extraordinary script-in-hand cast of six actors.
Later in the year, in a torrent of workshops and redrafts, some of the plays will be selected for development and full production; but in the meantime, there was something slightly mind-blowing, and endlessly fascinating, about the experience of watching one tiny new play after another jostle its way onto the Traverse stage.
There were the foolish, the surreal and the merely jokey; there were those that ignored the Edinburgh theme, and those over-determined by it. There was a strong tendency to talk to the dead, as if that might be one way for our secular society to deal with mortality. There were recurring references to the trams, often as a kind of Godot that never arrives, no matter how long we wait; and there was some lightweight politics around the vague idea that independence means building walls – although I loved Deborah Klayman’s Boundary, which brought images of cities divided by war home to the urban boundary between Edinburgh and Leith.
Among other plays I can’t forget are Sam Siggs’s Acorns, in which a bereaved boy talks to his dead father; Sylvia Dow’s Mnemonic, a monologue for a man implicated in murder written with terrific structural grace and poise; and Sophie Good’s End Of The Line, a strange mix of tragedy and comedy in which an old woman waiting for death in a home or hospital, imagines she is waiting to be the first person to ride the tram.
In the end, though, it seems almost invidious to single out individual plays, in such a torrent of creativity and potential. And although the writing varied in quality, it was always thrilling to watch the flair, effort and brilliance with which the cast – Paul Thomas Hickey, Gabriel Quigley, Anne Lacey, Lewis Howden, Scott Fletcher and Pamela Reid – navigated their way through this unprecedented evening of new writing rampant; or the skill with which the whole event was shaped by director Orla O’Loughlin, and her associate Hamish Pirie.
If there is one other place in Scottish theatre as fully dedicated to new writing as the Traverse, it is David MacLennan’s magical Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime theatre season, now launching its 18th packed six-month programme since it began in 2004. This week’s play is by leading Scottish-based playwright and screenwriter Ann Marie di Mambro, whose credits include River City and Casualty; and to see the packed West End audience pile into Oran Mor at lunchtime on Monday, at the height of a drenching Glasgow rainstorm, was to see a true theatrical phenomenon powering up for the new season.
Di Mambro’s play, Only The Lonely, is an unemarkable piece of work in terms of content and style. It’s essentially a well-made 45-minute romantic comedy about the fraught relationship between middle-aged children and elderly parents; River City star Libby McArthur is disappointed fortysomething divorcee Diane, giving dogs’ abuse to her forgetful old Dad, and Scotland’s panto genius Alan McHugh is soppy fortyish singleton Jim, compensating for the gaps in his own life by over-protecting his game-for-anything widowed mother. So far, so predictable, Yet if the play represents a fairly conventional reminder that the middle-aged are often more confused than their elders, it’s so well handled, in Liz Carruthers’s flawless production, that the light-touch comedy and straightforward humanity are almost irresistible; and the audience cheer the show to the echo, as a richly comic yet accurate portrayal of a situation all too familiar, and one that’s bound to touch most of us, sooner or later.
• The Traverse 50 Project continues at the Traverse throughout 2013. Only The Lonely is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, 2 February.