The power of imagination to free us from worldly concerns is a dominant theme right now, but sometimes a grounding in reality is a breath of fresh air
IT MIGHT be the influence of magical realism, or perhaps a more direct response to troubled and intractable times, but theatre at the moment seems full of shows in which the power of imagination somehow trumps reality, or helps create more bearable worlds. Garry Robson’s new play The Man Who Lived Twice – touring Scotland in a production from mixed-ability company Birds Of Paradise – is an imperfect piece of work in many ways, and could certainly use a sharper and more dynamic staging than it gets here.
Yet it touches so precisely on this theme of imagination and its power to create more tolerable worlds, that its effect is strangely haunting, and its failures are more tantalising than depressing. The play is set in the New York apartment of Edward “Ned” Sheldon, an American playwright who – after a glittering early career in the 1920s – was struck down by rheumatoid arthritis. He rapidly became blind and almost completely paralysed; but ensconced on a bed in his New York salon, among black satin sheets, he would play the perfectly-groomed host and solo audience to a gallery of 1930s theatrical stars, including the young John Gielgud, who met him on his first visit to New York in 1936.
Based on Eric Barnes’s biography of the same name, Robson’s play revolves around this strange encounter, which Gielgud later described as one of the most remarkable experiences of his life. Kenny Miller’s lush and eloquent set features Sheldon’s bed, a large grand piano wreathed in dressing-room lights, and a series of windows through which dreams and memories enter Sheldon’s room. There’s also a perch for Sheldon’s famous male macaw, Archie, and it’s in the scenes featuring this character that the play often falters, since Archie is played here as a shrill and mouthy female figure who says far too much, does it quite badly in Karina Jones’s confused-looking performance, and often seriously disrupts the rhythm of the drama.
At its core, though, Alison Peebles’s production features two beautiful performances, from Laurie Brown as the troubled Gielgud – struggling to acknowledge his own gay sexuality – and from Paul Cunningham as a powerful, sphinx-like Sheldon, full of ambiguous charm, and inclined to feel that his second life, within the confines of his room, suits his distant, complex personality better than his first. It’s flawed, uneven, occasionally beautiful stuff, powerfully supported by composer Ross Brown as pianist and manservant; and at its best, it provokes deep thought about the imaginative no-man’s-land often inhabited by gay men during the long centuries of prohibition, and the strange riches they sometimes found there.
Will Gore’s Facegone – this week’s lunchtime Play, Pie and Pint show – also features a leading character who uses imagination to escape his physical limitations. In this 45-minute drama, Scott Fletcher plays Kyle, a teenage boy with a bady disfigured face, which compels him to wear a mask. Kyle survives this experience by imagining himself as a comic-book hero, Mask Boy, who has superhuman powers, and who whooshes and zaps his way through the hazards of his life, which include the death of his dad, and the hideous bullying of a local thug called Rip, who drags his little brother Danny in his wake.
With Dave Anderson in fine form as the loving grandad who both encourages Kyle’s creative energy and keeps him rooted in reality, Facegone emerges, in Sacha Kyle’s production, as a taut, beautifully acted tribute both to the power of the imagination and to the need to recognise its limits. And there’s a very similar background theme to Starcatcher’s latest touring show for tiny tots, The Attic. Here, a little girl – played by writer Hazel Darwin-Edwards – and her slightly dotty granny (Carol Ann Crawford) potter around in an attic, looking for a gift which granny wants to give to her. With the help of some lovely, meditative music by David Paul Jones – played on an ancient attic piano by Keith McLeish – they find the gift in the end, and with it a whole new world of friends. In a grand participatory gesture, though, the show then dissolves into a toddler’s tea-party, with lots of knitted cupcakes and silly hats. It’s great fun, but I reckon than even a two-year-old has enough sense of narrative structure to wonder why the story has no ending; and not so much as a final satisfying wave goodbye.
It’s perhaps significant, though, that it’s the youngest company on stage this week who seem most fearlessly inclined to engage with their world as it is. The Tramway’s Junction 25 youth theatre company – steered by directors Tashi Gore and Jess Thorpe – have been hailed as one of the finest in the UK, and it’s not difficult to see why: every one of the 17 performers on stage has an energy, a focus, a controlled anger, and a fierce, ironic humour that gives a spine-shuddering collective power to their trademark collages of movement, music, and semi-documentary improvisation.
Their latest show, Anoesis, deals with the competitive pressures of the examination system, seating the audience and the cast along two long desk-like benches in front of individual exam papers, and then uses the benches as tramlines and catwalks for a series of dramatic exchanges about pressure, ambition, success, failure, and the treadmill of academic and personal assessment. It lasts only 65 minutes, and its style is familiar. Yet it’s also powerful, theatrical, perfectly-shaped, moving and real, like no other piece of theatre I’ve seen this week.
THE MAN WHO LIVED TWICE ***
THE ARCHES, GLASGOW
ORAN MOR, GLASGOW
THE ATTIC ***
• The Man Who Lived Twice is on tour until 5 April; Facegone is at Oran Mor, Glasgow until Saturday; The Attic is at Falkirk Town Hall today, and at Howden Park Theatre, Livingston, tomorrow and Saturday; Anoesis, run completed.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
Paul Cunningham gives a disturbingly charismatic performance as the paralysed American playwright Ned Sheldon, in Garry Robson’s The Man Who Lived Twice. Beautifully dressed, perfectly shaved and made up, he inhabits his New York apartment like a giant spider at the centre of a web, his huge masculine vigour channelled ever more fiercely into the life of the mind, and his private theatre of seduction and illusion.