Theatre review: How To Disappear, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

How to disappear? Maybe to stage a dark and brilliant new play, full of razor-sharp Doric wit, in the middle of the Christmas season, when minds are more focused on festive cheer, frantic shopping and finding a children's show that hits the right age-range for the small people near you.
How To DisappearHow To Disappear
How To Disappear

How To Disappear, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

As the playwright Morna Pearson has pointed out, though, not everyone in our supposedly “inclusive” society is caught up in the Christmas rush; and it certainly excludes people like Robert and Isla, the brother and sister at the centre of her fine new 90-minute drama. Their mother is dead, their dad has disappeared leaving them all but penniless; and Robert, in his 20s, is a man with severe problems, brilliantly intelligent but fiercely agoraphobic, holed up in his room with his pet snake Charlene and his pet iguana Scott, while he picks off his own skin and plucks out his own hair.

Isla, meanwhile, is being bullied at school and increasingly avoids going there; and into the middle of this crisis walks Jessica, a benefits assessor from the Department for Work and Pensions who speaks a subtly more professional form of ripe north-east Scots than Robert and Isla, and is there to determine – with the help of a ridiculous official form – that the hapless Robert is fit for work.

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The three characters make, in other words, an initially depressing group, caught in the untidy mess of Robert’s room. Yet it’s a pure joy to see how the magic of Pearson’s text – witty, poetic, profound and ruthless – combines with three superb performances from Owen Whitelaw, Kirsty Mackay and Sally Reid to create a surreal and beautiful play for today, exposing not only the obvious suffering of Robert and Isla but Robert’s strange intellectual poise and insight, Isla’s fierce fighting spirit, and the corrosive hidden pain of Jessica’s “professional” life, hemmed in by a bad marriage and an indefensible and dehumanising job.

Gareth Nicholls’s direction is flawless, Owen Whitelaw’s handling of Robert’s beautiful Doric monologues an absolute masterclass in acting, as raw and truthful as it is understated. And in the end, there’s a fresh fall of snow, and just a hint of redemption and rebirth; making How To Disappear perhaps more of a Christmas show than it at first seems, a tale about how to go through the fire and chill of an increasingly baffling universe, to hold fast to the energy of your own language and to emerge severely battered, but also brand new.

*Until 23 December