Theatre reviews: Babs | Witch Hunt | Redcoat

Witches took centre stage at both ends of the M8 this week, writes Joyce McMillan

Babs, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

Witch Hunt, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

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Redcoat, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ***

Abigail Dooley and Emma Edwards in Witch Hunt
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It’s not Hallowe’en any more; but it’s been a witchy week in Scottish theatre, nonetheless. In Morna Young’s new solo show Babs, at a Play, a Pie and a Pint – all written in a vivid and passionate Doric – the multi-talented musician, singer, songwriter and actor Bethany Tennick plays our heroine Lisa, a teenage quine fae Aberdeen who is driven to fury when her best friend and holiday companion Shelley meets a new boyfriend, and decides to go on holiday with him instead.

Things take a mysterious turn, though, when lonely Lisa enters a holiday competition, and wins a weekend at the strange forest home of Babs, who turns out to be a sorceress of some power. The aim, it seems, is to bring young Lisa to the point where she can begin to forge her own path through life, instead of always trying to please others; and all of this, including thumbnail portraits of at least half a dozen supporting characters, is delivered with tremendous energy and charisma by Tennick, who has also written several gorgeous songs for voice and guitar to accompany the story. As for Babs – well, she turns out to be none other than the old Baba Yaga of east European legend; the witch who lives in the forest on a house with chicken legs, and either empowers young women or devours them, depending on which version of the story you believe.

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The same combination of witchy imagery and 21st century feminism appears in A & E Comedy’s 2019 Fringe hit Witch Hunt, which completed a UK tour at the Traverse this week; but in the hands of co-creators and performers Abigail Dooley and Emma Edwards, it also acquires a streak of pure English absurdism, full of meta-theatrical jokery that constantly threatens – although only in fun – to bring the action grinding to a halt.

At the heart of the spooky nonsense, though, lies the implacable question “can we use witchcraft to bring down the patriarchy?”; and in delivering their answer – “hell, yes” – Dooley and Edwards romp their way through a preposterous and often visually startling hour, in which stereotypes of middle-aged women keep exploding in our gobsmacked faces. There are fabulous costumes, twisted fairy tales, moments of pure filth, and witchy hands to die for; and the whole show is cheered to the echo by a packed and youthful audience, who clearly love a show that combines feminist politics with horror-movie thrills, and also merrily sends up the art of theatre itself.

There are no witches in writer and performer Lewis Jobson’s intense 70-minute solo show Redcoat, also at the Traverse; but there seem to be plenty of demons, lurking beneath the surface of our hero’s sunny personality. At first glance, Jobson’s play seems as if it might shape up as a gay coming-of-age tale, as he reflects on the time, ten years ago, when he worked as a Redcoat in a holiday camp in Bognor Regis.

What emerges, though, is something more like a drama about class and exploitation – about the terrible conditions of the job, and the pressure of work that demands constant, obedient good cheer – interwoven with startling bursts of wild solo dancing, in which Lewis offers us a glimpse both of the endless onstage entertainment Redcoats are expected to provide, and of his own behaviour on staggeringly drunken nights out. By the end, the audience hardly knows whether to laugh or cry; and Lewis sets off back to his old life with the final scene of his Redcoat story till untold, although it seems to have left him a sadder and wiser man.

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Babs, Oran Mor, Glasgow, and Redcoat at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 19 November. Witch Hunt, tour completed