Theatre review: Charlie Sonata

Sandy Grierson as Charlie in Charlie Sonata at the Lyceum PIC: Drew Farrell
Sandy Grierson as Charlie in Charlie Sonata at the Lyceum PIC: Drew Farrell
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As the play opens, there’s a hospital bed with a beautiful young girl lying in it, in a coma. There are a few chairs, in a room, off the ward; there’s a doctor, trying to make a phone call. And there’s a man called Charlie Sonata who is so drunk he can hardly speak, but is trying to talk to the doctor.

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Charlie is a severe alcoholic, a man in his early forties who was born in Scotland but now lives on the streets of London, or in bleak derelict rooms there. Twice a year, though, he comes back north for a reunion with his two university friends, Gary and Jackson –the ones who have moved on, stopped drinking so much, acquired jobs, mortgages, in Gary’s case a wife and a stepdaughter.

And this time, he arrives to find Gary’s beloved daughter Audrey unconscious in hospital after a road accident, which is where this strange, beautiful and haunting 21st century version of a Sleeping Beauty story begins, with Charlie – who has a truly sweet and loving soul, despite his terrible addiction and wrecked body – desperately trying to ask the doctor if there isn’t something he can do, some bargain he can make, that will save Audrey’s life.

Running for just two hours without an interval, Douglas Maxwell’s latest play – directed with a wonderful, dream-like intensity and poise by Matthew Lenton of Vanishing Point – is perhaps just a little too long for the arc of its story; there’s a tragicomic sub-plot that slightly beggars belief, although it creates space for the wonderful character of Meredith, the troubled woman dressed in a wicked fairy Carabosse costume who accompanies Charlie on his night-long journey.

For all its fanciful quality, though, there’s an unforgettable human magic about Maxwell’s tale of failed attempts to grow up, of lives gone slightly wrong, of love that appears in the strangest places.

Its rhythm is magnificently captured in Lenton’s production, which features fine sound and music by Mark Melville, a wonderful, dream-like design by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, and a range of performances – from Sandy Grierson as Charlie, Meg Fraser as Meredith, and all the rest of the nine-strong cast – that make the heart ache with their vulnerability and strength, their absolute 
emotional reality. Is the play written in sonata form, as some have suggested? I’m not sure. It’s certainly full, though, of the sad, complex music of humanity and of a human soul moving through all the debris of a life in free-fall, towards a decisive final gesture.

*Until 13 May