IT’S seven years since the young Edinburgh academic Prudencia Hart first took to the road, on her way to an ill-fated seminar in Kelso on the Border ballad tradition; but the National Theatre of Scotland’s famous pub show about her strange undoing – now celebrated across two continents – has lost none of its strange comic and erotic allure, as David Greig gives a funny, compassionate, stylish and whimsical 21st century makeover to Scotland’s grand ballad tradition.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh ****
Chic Murray: A Funny Place For A Window, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****
So we sit at pub tables, tearing up napkins to create the story’s opening snowstorm, and hear the rhyming tale of Prudencia, an uptight but lovable postgraduate student who drives to Kelso through a gathering blizzard – overtaken en route by her annoying colleague Colin Sime, on his motorbike – only to find herself stranded there, and, like many a ballad hero before her, stepping through a gap in time into eternity – in this case the bed-and-breakfast from hell, run by the devil, a charmer called Nick.
Millennia pass timelessly, as Pru browses in the devil’s library; but eventually, the pain of imprisonment becomes too much for her, and she triggers a terrific battle of wit, passion, seduction and willpower that only ends when she leaps back through the gap into the waiting arms of – yes–- that same Colin Sime.
It’s a tremendous tale, brilliantly and ingeniously told in Wils Wilson’s production; and this latest cast is perhaps her finest yet, a brilliantly focused, fast-moving ensemble that includes Wildcat veteran George Drennan as narrator and lead musician, and the enthralling and magical Jessica Hardwick as Prudencia.
The Strange Undoing is a joyously postmodern show, famous for its glorious collision between some of the oldest ideas in Scottish literature, and 21st century popular culture; and when, this time round, Prudencia finishes her final super-seductive karaoke performance of Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, the audience just can’t resist jumping to their feet, and giving this fine company a standing ovation.
This week’s Play, Pie And Pint show – written and directed by Stuart Hepburn – also contains some vintage and exquisite Scottish comedy, this time from the school of whimsical surrealism pioneered by the great Scots comic Chic Murray, between the 1930s and his death in 1985.
Subtitled with the punchline of one of Murray’s favourite jokes – “I opened the window in my pyjamas; funny place for a window…” – Hepburn’s play is essentially a gentle one-hour biopic, narrated by Kate Donnelly as Murray’s long-suffering wife and sometime professional partner, Maidie Dickson, and tracing their story from their first meeting at Chic’s mother’s theatrical rooming-house in Greenock in 1934, to Chic’s poignant death in the house next door to the Edinburgh home of the now estranged Maidie.
The heart and soul of the show, though, lies in David Anderson’s wonderful portrayal of Murray, as he finds his remarkable comic style, develops it into a glittering stage and film career, and at the same time destroys his wonderful marriage to Maidie, through a mixture of faithlessness and booze.
Brian James O’Sullivan offers magnificent support as musician and as every other character in the tale, from the friendly Edinburgh neighbour who offers Chic a final bed for the night, to that beaming variety king of the piano keys, Liberace.
And the overall effect is of a delicious, complex, and loving tribute to a vital piece of Scottish showbiz history, and the man who created it; the Tall Droll to Maidie’s Small Doll, unique, hilarious, and inimitable – but happily not unplayable, as David Anderson so eloquently demonstrates in this memorable show.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is at Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, tonight, and on tour to Mull and Oban next week. Chic Murray: A Funny Place For A Window is at Oran Mor, Glasgow today, and the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, next week.