Theatre review: Damned Rebel Bitches, Traverse, Edinburgh

Tina Gray in Damned Rebel Bitches
Tina Gray in Damned Rebel Bitches
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Old age is the headline theme of this latest play from writer-director Sandy Thomson, the fireball of theatrical energy who runs Poorboy Theatre. The idea behind the show – co-produced by the admirable Mull Theatre as part of this month’s Luminate Festival of creative ageing – is to demonstrate that old ladies are not the gentle figures of wisdom portrayed in most works of fiction, where, says Thomson, they usually “give the younger characters advice, or die”.

Damned Rebel Bitches ***

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

So Thomson sets about making the point by telling the story – loosely based on her own family history – of sisters Ella and Irene, born in Clydebank before the Second World War. They are both tough, uncompromising women who grew up in the Blitz, emigrated to New York after the war, and only returned to Scotland after Ella’s Canadian-American husband died; so when 80-year-old Ella hears, in 2012, that her beloved grandson Cameron has disappeared in a New York about to be hit by Hurricane Sandy, it’s altogether typical that she gathers up her backpack and, with her 86-year-old sister, heads across the Atlantic to sort things out.

The problem, though, is that the show combines a hugely complex flashback narrative structure – navigated through constant announcements of date and place from the four-strong cast – with an immense tendency to be distracted from its theme by the vividness of its own material, on subjects from the nature of marriage to the history of New York cocktails.

Add the powerful and moving but often slightly surreal impact of having Ella played, even as a child, by wonderful veteran actress Tina Gray, while Irene is played by young Eilidh McCormick, and the effect becomes less like seeing their story told, and more like having it thrown at us in vivid impressionistic chunks, rearranged in the order of an emergency filming schedule.

And although it is billed to last exactly two hours including interval, Damned Rebel Bitches in fact lasts a full two and a half; a fact which tells you much of what you need to know about this big, gorgeous, and sometimes self-indulgent slice of female life, which could perhaps have benefited from a different and stricter director’s eye on Thomson’s script, to prune away the extra, repetitive words when it falls too deeply in love with its own argument, and to ensure it makes the full, clear impact this story so richly deserves.

*On tour this week to Platform, Glasgow, Harbour Arts, Irvine, and Paisley Arts Centre