Theatre reviews: The Monstrous Heart, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh | Fibres, Paisley Arts Centre

FAMILIES. We love them, sometimes hate them, and definitely can’t live without them, in one form or another; but there can rarely have been a play that tears into the normal pieties of family life – and particularly into the often idealised relationship between mother and child – with such ferocity as Oliver Emanuel’s The Monstrous Heart, now playing at the Traverse.

Mag lives in a rustic cabin in the Canadian wilds, far from neighbours and further from her past. But when her estranged daughter, Beth, turns up on the doorstep, having been released from prison, the past becomes terrifyingly present.

The Monstrous Heart, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh **** | Fibres, Paisley Arts Centre ****

Co-produced by the Traverse and the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough – where it premiered earlier this month – the play is set in a cabin on the edge of the Canadian wilderness, where middle-aged Mag is living a fairly reclusive life when her hard-won peace is disrupted by the return of Beth, her raging and disruptive daughter, who has just been released from prison in Britain. Trembling with fear and shock, Mag at first tries to resist Beth’s wild, charismatic taunting and threats, many of them focused on the giant, dead female bear laid out on Mag’s kitchen table, and on her new job as a taxidermist for the local museum.

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Before long, though, Beth has Mag back on the booze she has worked so hard to shun; and from that point, in this hectic and unrelenting 80 minutes of confrontation, the drama can only spiral downward toward utter catastrophe and violence. It’s harder than it perhaps should be to say what Emanuel might mean by this, or what the point might be; the play seems to raise questions about whether some people are just bad by nature, but then demonstrates fairly conclusively that the bright and gifted Beth’s murderous destructive rage is at least partly Mag’s fault, as a failed mother who never allowed any creative expression of Beth’s obvious brains and talent.

Jonathan Watson and Maureen Carr give heartfelt depictions of Jack and Beanie, both dying of asbestos exposure in Fibres

If it sometimes lacks clarity, though, Emanuel’s memorable play is never short of vividness, in a blistering production by Gareth Nicholls that features a memorable blood-red set by Cecile Tremolieres, sound by Oguz Kaplangi, and a charismatic and terrifying performance from Charlene Boyd as Beth, with an equally powerful Christine Entwisle as Mag; and if Mag, in the end, is the “real monster” here, then there’s also a hint that in some families, the cycle of rage and violence can only ever end with the most drastic and horrifying solution of all.

Frances Poet’s Fibres, by contrast, offers a much gentler view of family life, in a story where the violence comes not from within, but from the slow-burning cruelty and injustice of a wider society where, for almost a century, employers continued to allow workers in construction and shipbuilding to work with asbestos, while knowing that it could cause fatal lung disease, including the deadly cancer mesothelioma, which can take up to 50 years to develop. Produced by women-led company Stellar Quines and the Citizens’ Theatre, Fibres focuses not only on the men who tend to be the primary victims of the disease, but on their families; on the wives who can also be affected after washing the men’s fibre-covered clothes, and on their children.

In Jemima Levick’s heartfelt and good-looking production, Jonathan Watson and Maureen Carr deliver a pair of complex and heartfelt performances as Jack, an elderly man diagnosed with the disease after working in shipyards in his youth, and his wife Beanie, who – after her own diagnosis – finds that she is angrier about the rigid assumptions about male and female roles that shaped their marriage and her life than about the disease itself.

In an effort to lighten the mood, Poet perhaps – over a short 80 minutes – places slightly too little emphasis on Jack and Beanie, and too much on the budding romance, after their deaths, between their angry and grief-stricken daughter Lucy, and her stressed-out boss Pete; his cavalier attitude to health and safety is never given the strong political work-out the story demands. These are minor flaws, though, in a show that is strongly supported by Scotland’s Action On Asbestos group; and is taking a story that desperately needs to be told to many communities deeply affected by the disease, in a form that offers strength, hope and humour, as well as a hard-edged understanding of the facts behind the crisis.