Theatre reviews: Toy Plastic Chicken, Oran Mor, Glasgow | The Worst Witch, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh | Sound Symphony, The Studio, Edinburgh

THE scene is one of Scotland’s largest airports, during a routine flight security check. Rachel is heading to Istanbul for a much-needed tourist break; but when her hand luggage comes alive, thanks to a battery-operated egg-laying toy chicken she bought on an impulse as a gift, security man Ross starts to overreact in ways that rapidly become very frightening indeed.

Toy Plastic chicken is based on a true story. Neshla Caplan as Rachel and David James Kirkwood as Ross
Toy Plastic chicken is based on a true story. Neshla Caplan as Rachel and David James Kirkwood as Ross

Toy Plastic Chicken, Oran Mor, Glasgow **** | The Worst Witch, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh **** | Sound Symphony, The Studio, Edinburgh ****

What’s interesting about Uma Nada-Rajah’s new Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime drama, though, is that rather than stereotyping Ross and his colleague Emma as a pair of bullying and possibly racist control-freaks, it instead probes deeply and dispiritingly into the ways in which legislation like Britain’s current draconian anti-terrorism law, particularly when combined with poor and insecure working conditions, can turn perfectly normal, kindly people into willing proto-fascists. Ross is desperate both to keep his job and to move up a grade, and sees in Rachel’s chicken an opportunity to win some anti-terrorist brownie points; Emma reluctantly goes along with his plan, although she has other things on her mind.

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So Rachel soon finds herself being grilled under the terms of legislation and guidelines that are essentially designed to frame anyone the authorities see as suspicious; anyone who has ever publicly disagreed with a government policy, practised any form of religion, fallen out with their family, or undergone dozens of other ordinary life experiences. Eventually, Ross – sharply played by David James Kirkwood – decides that Emma must subject Rachel to a full body search; and in that moment, in Paul Brotherston’s razor-sharp production, Neshla Caplan as Rachel, and Anna Russell Martin as Emma, deliver a truly stunning image of two women forced into a situation where one is compelled to humiliate the other, to her own palpable misery. Nada-Rajah’s play is based on a real-life incident; and if ever you wanted an insight into how profoundly illiberal law itself helps to create and legitimise fascistic attitudes, then this hard-edged and beautifully-observed short play delivers it, in a production to remember.

Polly Lister is both kindly Miss Cackle and her ghastly twin in The Worst Witch

The Worst Witch – playing its only Scottish dates at the King’s Theatre this week – is also a show that knows where it stands politically, as accidental trainee witch Mildred finds herself at Miss Cackle’s Witching Academy, up against assorted forces of snobbery, inherited privilege, and – after Miss Cackle’s wicked twin Agatha appears on the scene – the ugly might-is-right attitudes of a truly evil authoritarian personality.

Nowadays, the mere mention of a school story about witching or wizarding conjures up images of Harry Potter. Worst Witch author Jill Murphy, though, published her first book 20 years before JK Rowling first put pen to paper; and Emma Reeeves’s blissfully witty stage version –with half a dozen excellent songs by Luke Potter, fine ensemble choreography by Beverely Norris-Edmunds, and a gorgeous all-purpose set by Simon Daw – is beautifully directed by Theresa Heskins, and performed by a terrific, life-enhancing all-female cast of ten, led by Danielle Bird as Mildred, and Polly Lister as both kindly Miss Cackle, and her ghastly doppelgänger of a twin.

Also aimed at younger audiences – and specifically at children with profound autism –is Independent Arts Project’s Sound Symphony, produced in association with Edinburgh’s Capital Theatres, and now on tour across Scotland. The final judgment on this show must lie with the children who see it, and their families; but to me, Ellie Griffiths’s show seemed like a joyful and exquisite piece of work, beautifully designed by Katy Wilson and lit by Colin Grenfell, and composed and performed with terrific sensitivity and exuberance by three musician-theatremakers, Greg Sinclair, Sonia Allori and Shiori Usui.

The idea is to create the most relaxed possible journey through sound, from formal orchestral playing on cello, clarinet and marimba, to sounds generated by paper, or bubble-wrap, or hundreds of tiny plastic spoons. And to judge by the delight on the faces of some of the children, as they joined in to try out the instruments or examine the wind-machine blowing red petals across the stage, Sound Symphony is a show that strikes the right note, in opening up new experiences for children who may struggle to cope with theatre in its more conventional forms.