The Lyceum’s ambitious yet slightly disappointing first show of the year, about a pair of Victorian spiritualist hucksters, is overshadowed by the simple joys of a returning play for nursery-age children
THE INFAMOUS BROTHERS DAVENPORT - ROYAL LYCEUM THEATRE, EDINBURGH ***
WHITE - BRUNTON THEATRE, MUSSELBURGH ****
THE BUILDERS - TRAVERSE THEATRE, EDINBURGH ***
IT’S ambitious, it’s spectacular, it’s incredibly rich in theatrical texture, and it tussles mightily with some of the great themes of human civilisation; yet it’s sometimes just a little bit dull. This is the towering paradox of The Infamous Brothers Davenport, the first major Scottish theatre show of 2012, co-produced by the Royal Lyceum Theatre and the ingenious young touring company Vox Motus – based on the true story of two late-19th-century spiritualist entertainers – and written by Peter Arnott, possibly the most clever and thought-provoking of all Scotland’s playwrights. It’s a paradox that persists through a long but fascinating two and a half hours in the Lyceum’s picturesque Victorian auditorium, which forms a near-perfect setting for a play that is part disturbing family drama, part site-specific evocation of the kind of magic and spiritualist shows that were so popular around the turn of the 20th century.
As the show begins, the audience is invited – by a cast in elaborate period costume – to wander up onto the stage, and to examine the big panelled-wood cabinet that is the centrepiece of the set. Some audience members are even dressed up in waistcoats and long skirts – in the style of the recent Salon experience at the Traverse – and asked to sit on stage, tying a set of knots here, taking part in a seance there.
Gavin Mitchell, as manager and compere Mr Fay, introduces both our patroness for the evening – an intense Edinburgh lady seeking news of her lost explorer husband – and the stars of the show, the strange little Davenport brothers, Willie and Ira, fresh from the United States. Tricks and wonders ensue, none of them very convincing. And meanwhile, the story rumbles into action; a double narrative of our lady host’s desperate quest for scientific proof that communication with the dead is possible, and of Willie and Ira’s terrible family history, dominated by a bullying and violent father who sexually abused their beloved older sister Katie to the point of probable suicide.
Now there is no overstating the force of some of the images generated by this haunting story, as the Davenports’ strange cabinet folds and unfolds, revealing and concealing. There are blazing city skylines, mighty winds, huddled crowds of spectators silhouetted in fairground booths, and the steady presence of the luminous ghost of Katie. The show also features some terrific performances, notably from a mighty Gavin Mitchell as both father and impresario, and from real-life brothers Ryan and Scott Fletcher as the Davenports. And it ends on a powerful note of uncertainty, poised between rigorous exposure of spiritualist chicanery, and a sense that – as Papa Davenport says – our minds can indeed make worlds, and change realities.
Throughout most of the play, though, there’s something stodgy and repetitive about the narrative; about the repeated arguments over whether Katie’s spirit is “real” or just a split-off part of young Willie’s troubled mind, and over Lady Noyes-Woodhull’s desperate quest for scientific respectability and certainty, in a field full of blind faith or outrageous charlatanism. And for all the vividness of the visual imagery, the endless changing of scenes and shifting of equipment often seems to inhibit the action; as if something had slipped slightly out of joint in the relationship between the physical and dramatic elements of the show, and never quite been healed.
All of which provides a powerful contrast with the seamless and perfectly-achieved simplicity of Catherine Wheels’ great international hit White, a multiple award-winning show for two-to-four year olds first seen in 2010, and now revived with a new cast for a worldwide tour. When the actress Sarah Jessica Parker saw this show in New York, she described it as “the best 40 minutes of my life”. While that seems a bit of an overstatement, there is something uniquely compelling about this tale of two little white people who live in a completely white world, nurturing perfect white eggs in a series of little white nesting-box houses, until one day an egg arrives which is the wrong colour – a bright, blazing red. Every physical and aural detail of Gill Robertson’s production expresses the rhythm of Andy Manley’s simple story to perfection; the new performing partnership of Ian Cameron and Tim Licata works well. And it’s a pure joy to see the continuing power of this show to thrill and enchant audiences of nursery-age children, who enter immediately into its snowy little world, anticipating and relishing every move.
At the Traverse, meanwhile, Tim Licata’s other company Plutôt La Vie brought some relief to drama-starved January audiences, last weekend, with two hugely entertaining rehearsed readings of The Builders, by Danish playwright Line Knutzon. Set during the great property boom that ended with such a resounding crash in 2008, Knutzon’s black comedy seems to me more of a good one-line joke than a world-class drama. Once we’ve grasped that yuppie couple Alice and John have been driven completely nuts – to the point of multiple murder – by the effort to convert an old house into their dream home with the help of a terminally incompetent and dishonest team of builders, there’s not much more to say; and the play seems overextended at almost two hours.
There’s no doubt, though, that Tim Licata assembled an astonishing cast for these two readings, co-sponsored by the Year Of Creative Scotland. With Victoria Balnaves in terrific form as the decor-obsessed Alice, Robbie Jack as the chief builder, and Gerry Mulgrew and Gerda Stevenson offering a star turn as neighbours George and Maggie, the evening rolled along to a rousing comic conclusion, and also offered Edinburgh audiences a chance to see a slice of their own recent domestic history, pushed just beyond the limits of the absurd.
l The Infamous Brothers Davenport is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 20 January until 11 February, the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, from 14-18 February, and Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, from 22-25 February. White is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 11-14 April, and on tour. The Builders, run ended.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
He’s best known for his regular role as Boaby the barman in the television comedy Still Game. Yet Gavin Mitchell is one of the most powerful actors on the Scottish stage, capable of evoking the heavy patriarch with terrific force.
In The Infamous Brothers Davenport, he delivers a memorable double act, as both the flashy manager and compere Mr Fay, and the Davenports’ terrifyingly abusive Papa, foul-mouthed, violent, yet somehow strangely charismatic.
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