Theatre reviews: The Straw Chair | Octonauts

The Straw ChairEden Court Theatre, InvernessStar rating: ****

The Straw Chair brings to life one of the strangest stories in St Kildas history, three centuries on. Picture: Tommy GaKen Wan
The Straw Chair brings to life one of the strangest stories in St Kildas history, three centuries on. Picture: Tommy GaKen Wan

IN THE One Touch Theatre at Eden Court, there’s a packed audience for Hirtle Productions and Borderline’s touring revival of Sue Glover’s 1988 play The Straw Chair, set almost three centuries ago on Hirta, the main island of St Kilda. All over the world – and not least in the Highlands – people are fascinated by this wild Atlantic outcrop, and by the people who, until 1930, found a living there.

No story in its history is stranger than the tale of Rachel, Lady Grange, held prisoner on St Kilda after her husband of 25 years – a powerful Edinburgh establishment figure – grew tired of her jealous rages, and frightened of her sharp intelligence when applied to his secret political dealings, and had her forcibly removed from children, home, and – he hoped – from life itself.

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Yet Rachel survived, and was transferred to St Kilda, where she drank, complained, noisily asserted her high rank, and tried to smuggle out letters; and it’s this not entirely unsociable exile that forms the backdrop to Glover’s conventionally structured but richly enjoyable play, in which the catalyst for the drama is the arrival from Edinburgh of newlyweds Aeneas Seaton, a young minister, and his 17-year-old wife Isabel.

Easter Play "On the Edge" by Susan Mansfield, West Princes Street Gardens. Picture: TSPL

As young Isabel gets to know Lady Grange – with her high drawing-room manners, filthy clothes, and precious straw chair, the only one on the island – she learns a thing or two, not least about sex. Meanwhile, in the background, Rachel’s gentle St Kildan minder Oona sews and cooks, and gradually persuades Aeneas that the islanders understand far more about Christianity than he has ever done.

There’s something here about the classic split in the Scottish psyche between intense religious respectability and something much wilder; also something about lusty married sex, as a largely unexplored area of life and theatre; and beyond that a political story about powerless people caught up in the corrupt machinations of state power.

In Liz Carruther’s gentle, sensitive production, punctuated by the soaring psalms and soft dance music of the islands, Selina Boyack turns in a stunning performance as Rachel, on the brink of madness, but still funnier and more truthful than anyone else on stage. She is beautifully supported by Pamela Reid as young Isabel, Cait Kearney as Oona, and Martin McBride as Aeneas, in a play that demands attention for bringing so many unheard and marginalised voices – Gaelic, St Kildan, and intensely female – to the very centre of the stage

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 23-25 April, Brunton Theatre, Muselburgh, 2 May, and then touring.


Seen on 3 April

The Devil Wears Primark

Dundee Rep

Star rating: **

FIRST, let’s be clear about one thing. If your like your evening of theatre to include a bit of sexy, acrobatic fire-eating, delivered by a slim and muscular blonde who – for added excitement – uses a welding-torch to strike sparks from her own metallic thong, then The Devil Wears Primark is the show for you, as it tours across Scotland this month.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for a coherent stage sit-com with a few decent belly laughs, then perhaps you should try elsewhere.

This super-grotesque tale of the London-Greek-Cypriot agony aunt from hell – written by and starring Kathleen Ruddy – starts out by sending up Aunt Athy’s ludicrous right-wing misogyny, as purveyed on her morning radio show, and ends up producing a portrait of a monster middle-aged mother that is as savagely misogynistic as Aunt Athy’s own broadcast advice.

Around this bulging figure, Athy’s family revolve as best they can, with John Ritchie as feeble son Aris, Dawn Chandler as chubby daughter Maria, Mark McDonnell as husband Nico, and Penni Tovey as Mina, the fire-eating possible daughter-in-law, all squeezing the odd laugh from the play’s ferociously ambivalent dialogue.

In the final scenes, we’re invited to laugh at the idea of Athy having a stroke, and yet to cheer when she rises from her wheelchair to scupper Aris and Mina’s romance one more time. Reader, the sheer garishness and confusion made my mind hurt; and it wasn’t that funny, either.

• Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 17 April; Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, 18 April, then touring until 25 Aprll.


Seen on 4 April

On The Edge

Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh

Star rating: ***

THE annual Easter play in Princes Street Gardens is becoming something of an Edinburgh institution; and not because it repeats the story of the passion in reassuringly familiar ways. Last year – thanks to playwright Rob Drummond – it set the story of the crucifixion against the disturbingly recognisable background of a country divided by a turbulent debate over independence; and this year, Scotsman writer Susan Mansfield has created a brand new 100-minute play, for director Suzanner Lofthus’s 20-strong community company, in which we see the story from the perspective of eight relatively minor characters, “on the edge” of the tale.

So as the audience of almost 500 move around the gardens in four groups, we hear from David MacBeath as Longinus the Roman centurion, from Colin Wallace as Simon the Cyrene who helped carry the cross, from Elaine Palmer as Pilate’s wife Claudia, from an eloquent Lyzzie Dell as Martha the housework-bound sister of Lazarus, and from four others, plus a chorus of four more. And although the acting is not always quite strong enough to carry the power of the writing, Mansfield’s bold leaps of imagination and empathy produce some impressive moments of theatre, as ordinary people going about their business are stopped in their tracks by the presence of “this man Jesus”; and two teenage girls from Bethany – beautifully played by Fiona Binns and Emma Archibald – look up from their mobile phones to tell us how one of them died of a sudden illness, and truly and mysteriously, thank to Jesus the Nazarene, came back to life.

• Run ended


Seen on 4 April


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Star rating: ***

When you’re used to experiencing something from the comfort and security of your sofa, it’s exciting but a little bit daunting to encounter it in the outside world – especially when you’re three.

A huge hit on CBeebies, The Octonauts feel as close to many pre-schoolers as their favourite teddy, and here they were live on stage for the first time. The ripple of tiny oohs when their favourite character appeared said it all. The creators had succeeded in transporting this treasured underwater world from the small screen, to the King’s Theatre stage.

All eight of the TV programme’s main characters were in attendance, as was a suitably adventurous storyline. Plus there was a moment of genuine peril involving an active volcano and the avuncular Captain Barnacles.

But this is theatre, not TV, and to make it worth leaving your living room for, there has to be a difference. This was largely achieved through an Octonauts “cadet”, a trainee who – like us – helped the crew complete its mission and instigated much of the lively audience participation.

Some lovely moments of rod puppetry and UV lighting, featuring creatures from the deep, also showed this young audience the magic of theatre.

Perhaps it was the prospect of another two shows later that day, but the dance routines strayed dangerously close to lacklustre. These cruise ship-style moments will only have impacted on the adults in the crowd – the children had all their boxes ticked.


Seen on 4 April