Theatre reviews: A New Life | The Signalman | Groan Ups | Grease

A New Life is a brave and hard-hitting drama about an upwardly-mobile Glasgow couple and their struggles with parenthood, writes Joyce McMillan

Katie Barnett in A New Life at Oran Mor PIC: Leslie Black

A New Life, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

The Signalman, Perth Theatre *****

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Groan Ups, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ***

Grease, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh ****

In a western world where religion has often lost its force, parenthood has become a key source of meaning and purpose in many otherwise secular lives. The problem is, though, that while the “my kids mean everything to me” mantra has become a pervasive cultural norm, the real experience of parenthood, in our stressed-out society, is much more ambivalent, and sometimes downright devastating.

This is the trauma that Andy McGregor seeks to explore, in his new Play, Pie And Pint musical A New Life; and there are times when the emotional force of the breakdown he describes almost seems to overwhelm the jaunty modern-musical genre in which he works, and to demand something more like opera. The story begins light-heartedly enough, as upwardly-mobile Glasgow couple Jess and Robbie discover Jess is pregnant; but once their giant baby – hilariously played by a fully-grown and bearded Alan Orr – appears for real, Jess spirals down into a state of shock that leaves her exhausted, emotionally numb, and increasingly suicidal.

Katie Barnett as Jess, and Gavin Jon Wright as Robbie, portray the couple’s distress so vividly – and with some truly glorious singing – that most of the women in the audience, and many of the men, were wiping tears long before the end. And as for how it ends, the good news is that Jess and Robbie’s story continues; but how happily, well, this is a brave and hard-hitting piece of drama, and Andy McGregor is offering us no guarantees at all.

Trauma is also the theme of Peter Arnott’s mighty 2019 monologue The Signalman, co-created with and performed by the actor Tom McGovern; but here, the trauma is one etched into Scottish history, as McGovern recreates the character – 40 years on – of Thomas Barclay, the young signalman who waved the fateful train onto the new Tay Bridge on the stormy night of 28 December 1879, when the great bridge collapsed. Arnott’s play, McGovern’s performance and Ken Alexander’s production are already justly garlanded with awards; and now audiences across Scotland have a chance to catch up with this uniquely powerful and timely reflection on the vanity of human certainties and the fragility of our most monumental achievements, born out of the very stuff of 19th century Scottish life, and delivered with stunning force.

There’s also an unexpected touch of tension and trauma about Groan Ups, the latest show from Play That Went Wrong company Mischief Theatre, founded on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008, and now global stars for their hugely successful spoof-and-slapstick shows. Groan Ups, though, is something more like a conventional three-act play, showing the same group of characters aged 6, 14, and around 34, as they grow up at school together, and then meet again at a school reunion; and in truth, it’s all pretty standard middle-class coming-of-age stuff, although with a few welcome streaks of wild surrealism, and a surfeit of dead hamsters.

And as for Grease, playing at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh – well, despite the pains of teenage life, there’s very little sense of real trauma and unease about this bright-as-a-button touring production of the quintessential bubble-gum musical, as Nikolai Foster’s 20-strong company belt their way – with some truly terrific dancing – through the show’s exhilarating playlist. There’s a even a star appearance from Peter Andre, as the Teen Angel who finally sorts everyone out; a showbiz moment that attracts roars of applause, particularly from those who – back in the 1990s – were teenagers in love themselves.

A New Life is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 2 October, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 5-9 October. The Signalman is at Perth Theatre until 2 October, then at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 29-30 October, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 6 November, and Eden Court, Inverness, 10-11 November. Groan Ups is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until 2 October and the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, from 25-31 October. Grease is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until 2 October.

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