They say that it can take months of previews and tryouts to get a new musical comedy just right; and perhaps that’s the most flattering explanation for what’s going on at the Assembly Hall this week, where two of Scotland’s leading theatre companies – Grid Iron and Stellar Quines – have come together to create a show that looks at best interesting, moving and full of potential, and at worst a chaotic and unfunny mess.
Assembly Hall, Edinburgh ***
Written by Anita Vettesse and Johnny McKnight, and directed by Jemima Levick, the show is advertised as being about a night at the bingo; but the first shock is that despite Grid Iron’s track record as a site-specific company, the show involves no element of audience engagement, nor any sense that we’re actually in a bingo hall.
And if we get to play no bingo, then neither do most of the characters; instead, what the show aims to do, in spades, is to lay bare the seething passions and severe financial pressures that underlie the superficial calm of the average bingo hall.
The story revolves around unhappy 30-something Daniella, played with huge bravado by Louise McCarthy, who has committed an unforgivable financial crime against her friends and family out of sheer desperation.
It makes that leap in such extreme style, though – with Daniella going completely and grotesquely berserk – that it parts company with any recognisable reality at an early stage, and takes flight into a surreal realm of what should be perfectly-timed physical comedy, but is more like self-indulgent chaos accompanied by occasional brilliant one-liners, and a few completely forgettable songs.
Things improve greatly in the second half, when one clearly superfluous character – brilliantly played by Barbara Rafferty – is out of the game, and the action, dialogue and music begin to focus on the misery generated by a combination of loveless family life and endless, grinding economic stress.
The songs, with music by Alan Penman, take on a different tone, producing two or three beautiful ballads, notably for Wendy Seager as Daniella’s awful old mother Mary. And by the end, the show begins to look like a brave and powerful semi-absurdist drama about how solidarity among ordinary people in a bitterly unequal society can eventually triumph over the worst of mutual betrayals and infighting; although it may take many more weeks of trial and error, at this rate, before that story emerges at full power from what is still, formal press night or not, very much a work in progress.
Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, until 17 March, and on tour to Stirling, Ayr, Musselburgh, Glasgow and Inverness, until 21 April.