Theatre review: Eulogy | The Shadow of Heaven

Benny Young and Joyce Falconer provide a real picture of the deceased Sandy
Benny Young and Joyce Falconer provide a real picture of the deceased Sandy
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GREAT matters of life, death and eternity loom large in both of these new shows just premiered in Scotland; but in Rob Drummond’s Eulogy, which arrives at the Traverse on Tuesday after its run at Oran Mor, they are handled with such lightness of touch –and such intermittently outrageous humour – that the audience is never in any danger of brooding too deeply on mortality.

Oran Mor, Glasgow *** | Macrobert, Stirling ***

In The Shadow Of Heaven eight actors/dancers led by Al Seed perform a response to part of Milton's Paradise Lost with mixed results

In The Shadow Of Heaven eight actors/dancers led by Al Seed perform a response to part of Milton's Paradise Lost with mixed results

Eulogy is a sequel to Drummond’s 2011 Play, Pie And Pint play Top Table, in which the anti-hero, a middle-aged man called Sandy, wrecks his daughter’s wedding by making the father-of-the-bride speech from hell, full of unthinking cruelty and rank if hilarious insults to the happy couple. Now, though, Sandy is dead, after a tragic accident; and his brother Andrew, a minister of the kirk, is delivering a funeral eulogy not much less hapless and memorable than the famous wedding speech, with Sandy – ably represented by Callum Cuthbertson – appearing via his own memorial video.

Andrew is soon interrupted by Sandy’s ex-wife, now living in bliss with a sailor in some Mediterranean paradise; and before too long, Benny Young and Joyce Falconer have conjured up an image of Sandy’s self-absorbed and self-pitying life so absurd that the audience spends most of the play’s 55 minutes shrieking with laughter, and concluding – perhaps unfortunately, given how things turn out – that it’s just as well Sandy has gone where he can do no more harm.

Towards the end, the play takes on a slightly more meditative tone, as it reflects on enduring brotherly love, and attempts some thoughts on the meaning of life. It’s at its best, though, when it’s painting a posthumous portrait of a truly preposterous life, plagued from the outset by a hopeless mismatch between ideals and reality; and it’s perhaps a measure of the play’s limitations that when it strays from that single, strong central joke, it rapidly begins to lose power.

The latest show by master of visual theatre Al Seed, by contrast, could hardly offer a more solemn and measured approach to matters of eternity. Co-created and directed with Judith Milligan, The Shadow Of Heaven is a 50-minute theatrical response to a sequence from Milton’s Paradise Lost, featuring all the major resources of live theatre, including a cast of eight actor-dancers, impressive original music and sound by Guy Veale, and an infinitely flexible set by Kai Fischer featuring a couple of large white moving blocks with fine gauzes and screens, beautifully and eloquently lit by Alberto Santos Bellido.

Whether Seed and Milligan succeed in pulling all these elements together into a satisfying show, though, is another question; and it is a shade dispiriting to see yet another opening night in Scotland where the show looks more like a fragment or a work-in-progress than a completed work. Here, the balance between Milton’s mighty poetry on one hand, and the sometimes frenzied and distracting movement of the eight-strong cast on the other, still seems far from resolved.

The Shadow of Heaven offers some moments of outstanding power, though, particularly when Seed is centre-stage in the role of Lucifer or Satan, leading his demons into the rich territory of earth and humankind, where he believes they will find fertile ground for their evil.

And if the resources deployed sometimes seem out of proportion to what should be a short and vivid cameo, reflecting on a single episode from Milton’s epic, there’s still plenty to admire in this original and courageous attempt, at a time of crisis in the history of earth and humanity, to reconnect with Milton’s great vision of our place in the cosmos, and of the mighty moral battles we face.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Eulogy is at Oran Mor, Glasgow until today, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 24-28 April. The Shadow Of Heaven, run ended