Theatre reviews: Blue Beard | Pushin' Thirty

Emma Rice’s steampunk reimagining of the Bluebeard story merges magic, song and wild glamour to create a glittering and enthralling cabaret of feminist resistance, writes Joyce McMillan

Blue Beard, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Pushin’ Thirty, Oran Mor, Glasgow ***

If you want a story of patriarchy at the its bloody worst, the old tale of Bluebeard – the charming older man who marries and murders one young woman after an other, keeping their corpses in a bloody chamber in his castle – is certainly the place to look. There can, though, rarely have been a stage version that takes this terrifying story so firmly by the scruff of the neck as Emma Rice’s new staging for the age we live in, created by her London-based Wise Children company for a UK consortium including the Lyceum in Edinburgh, York Theatre Royal, Home Manchester and Birmingham Rep.

As the story opens, a young lad wandering alone with a guitar arrives, exhausted and hungry, at a strange convent where the nuns declare themselves “fierce, f***ed and furious”; and where the Mother Superior – something of a stand-up comic, with a gruff line in 21st century social commentary – wears a strange blue beard, as a reminder, and a pledge for the future.

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The Mother Superior begins to tell the story of a young woman called Lucky, who falls for a charismatic magician with a blue beard, and marries him; and the action, with the songs that punctuate it, begins as an illustration of this narrative, immensely vivid – given a searing trio of performances from Robyn Sinclair as Lucky, Stephanie Hockley as her sister Trouble, and Patrycja Kujawska as their glamorous mother – yet sometimes a little slow-moving.

As the story unfolds, though, the show’s elements of magic, song, wild glamour and sharp storytelling merge into a glittering and enthralling cabaret of feminist resistance to Bluebeard’s violence, culminating in a deeply cathartic and climactic act of revenge. And layered over this fierce version of the original tale, we also begin to hear the boy’s own story, which returns us – and Katy Owen’s astonishing Mother Superior – to the world we all currently inhabit, where the threat of violence against women continues to create a sickening climate of fear.

Rice’s impassioned, heartbreaking, and often bleakly humorous narrative is held together by Stu Barker’s superb cabaret score, played live by Barker and the cast; and it’s combined with brilliant set and costume design by Vicki Mortimer, and powerful movement and dance by Etta Murfitt, to create an Angela-Carter-influenced steampunk spectacle as thrilling as the maelstrom of radical emotion and ideas that swirls through it, and brings it to life.

Blue Beard PIC: Steve TannerBlue Beard PIC: Steve Tanner
Blue Beard PIC: Steve Tanner

The latest Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime show Pushin’ Thirty may look pretty harmless and mild-mannered by comparison; but nonetheless, it’s an attractive and thoughtful play with songs about two old schoolfriends and band-mates from Dundee – Scott the guitar player and composer, Eilidh the singer and co-writer – who meet up again, by chance, on the eve of their respective 30th birthdays.

For the second week running, Play, Pie Pint’s “Introducing” season, made up of plays by writers new to the company – in this case Dundee duo Taylor Dyson and Calum Kelly – reflects on the plight of the generation now turning 30, born in a time of hope and prosperity, now desperate to find some personal happiness and meaning in a world in meltdown.

Last week, Imogen Stirling’s Freya found inspiration in a time-slip encounter with the great Scottish patriot and campaigner Wendy Wood. This week, by contrast, Scott and Eilidh find that reconnecting with each other, and with their Dundee roots, gives them the strength to move on to new adventures; and if their songs are so gentle they often sound a shade apologetic, the dialogue is brisk and spiky, and delivered with insight and feeling by Taylor Dyson herself as Eilidh, and Sam James Smith as the charming but thoughtless Scott, undergoing a sharp rite of passage into something more like adulthood.

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Blue Beard is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 30 March. Pushin’ Thirty is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 16 March, the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 19-23 March, and the Gaiety Theatre, Ayr, 28-30 March.