Theatre reviews: The Scaff | Murder in the Dark

Stephen Christopher and Graeme Smith’s new tragi-comedy The Scaff is a vital reminder both of the growing stigma of poverty in our increasingly unequal society, and of the truth that epic emotions are not just for adults, writes Joyce McMillan

The Scaff, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

Murder In The Dark, Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow **

To scavenge or scrounge, says the online Scots dictionary; or (noun) a poor person, a scrounger. And it’s clear from the first moments of Stephen Christopher and Graeme Smith’s new tragi-comedy The Scaff – which marks their Play, Pie and Pint debut – that among young folks in some parts of Scotland, the word “scaff” is an insult so severe that it can’t be laughed off; a slur not only on the victim’s character, and but also on his or her family, who cannot provide better.

So when young Liam’s friends Jamie and Frankie tell him that the star of the school football team (Colin, aka Coco) has been heard calling him a scaff, he is soon persuaded that something must be done. All four lads play in the school football team, and Liam soon gets the chance to deliver some physical punishment; but his revenge triggers a chain of events both hilarious and agonisingly painful, as his friendships fall apart, and the wounded Coco – though far from dead – is mourned by the whole school as a fallen hero.

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Over a fast-talking and fast-moving hour, Christopher and Smith lead us through a fierce emotional switchback-ride of a play packed with all the raw energy and simmering emotion of teenage angst and schoolyard politics. It’s difficult to fault Jordan Blackwood’s young cast, with Benjamin Keachie turning in a beautiful, soulful performance as Liam, Bailey Newsome memorably devious as Jamie, Stuart Edgar as his sidekick Frankie, and Craig McLean as Coco, idolised for his past football triumphs, but also neglected in his lonely recovery. And although the play’s conclusion is perhaps a shade too forgiving, The Scaff comes as a vital reminder both of the growing stigma of poverty, in our increasingly unequal society, and of the truth that epic emotions are not just for adults, but often touch us in our teenage years, more fiercely than at any other time.

If The Scaff draws its energy from a vigorous blast of teenage reality, Torben Betts’s new drama Murder In The Dark – now on tour from its home at Richmond Theatre to the Glasgow Pavilion – is one of those genre thrillers that barely seems connected to reality at all, particularly when it begins a half-hearted flirtation with the supernatural. It begins as washed-up fifty-something ex-rock star Danny and his beautiful young girlfriend Sarah arrive at a lonely hill farm, after Danny crashes their car into a roadside wall. It’s New Year’s Eve, and they want to get back to London; but as the eccentric farm owner Mrs Bateman explains, the combination of terrible weather and no phone signal or wifi means that they and their fellow travellers – Danny’s ex-wife, his son, and his brother – will have to spend in the night in Mrs Bateman’s farm holiday cottage, a bleak place with dodgy electrics and too few beds.

Various things happen in this unpromising spot, all of them – whether uncanny or not – accompanied by an ostentatiously spooky score by Max Pappenheim; lights flicker and fail, a ghostly ballet dancer makes appearances, and we begin to wonder exactly who Mrs Bateman is.

Murder in the Dark PIC: Pamela RaithMurder in the Dark PIC: Pamela Raith
Murder in the Dark PIC: Pamela Raith

Truth to tell, though, there’s little point in recounting the plot, since the play has one of those savage twists in the tail that renders it all a mere illusion anyway. A spirited cast – led by Holby City star Tom Chambers as Danny, and veteran stage and television actress Susie Blake as Mrs Bateman – do their best to inject some comic and dramatic life into what finally emerges as a pretty heavy-handed moral tale about the price of Danny’s many sins; but despite the company’s admirable efforts, it remains hard to grasp what’s going on, and even harder to care.

The Scaff at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 30 March, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 2-6 April. Murder In The Dark at the Pavilion, Glasgow, until 30 March.

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