Theatre review: Nests, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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Somewhere in a patch of scrubby woodland between the city and the countryside sits a wrecked caravan, with a middle-aged man asleep outside. A 12-year-old boy arrives on a bicycle, alone, hungry and lost; there’s also a crow, conjured up by beautiful outline animations on a few old television screens around the site, with which the lonely boy has struck up a friendship.

Nests, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

There’s something archetypal, in other words, about the story told by Edinburgh-based theatre-maker Xana Marwick in her new touring play Nests. Co-produced by Marwick’s Stadium Rock company and children’s theatre specialists Frozen Charlotte, Nests is inspired by the increasing vulnerability of children and young people with problems at home, at a time when the services which should protect them are increasingly starved of resources.

Yet its story of failed parenting in a time of growing poverty and stress carries echoes of epic tales from Hansel and Gretel – Marwick’s first inspiration – to Kes; and from the moment the man wakes up, we are watching two characters who are desperately wary of each other, yet drawn together by mutual need: the boy’s need to be parented, fed and cherished, the man’s need to nurture and to feel that he has passed on something of himself to the next generation. In the background of their stories there are many largely untold but easily imagined tragedies; the boy’s mother’s poorly treated mental health problems which have taken her from him, the school bullying he has suffered as a bookish lad from a desperately poor home and the underlying tragedy of the man’s life, in his abandonment of the baby son with whom he could not cope, as a young single father.

Marwick’s powerful story is brilliantly captured in Heather Fulton’s tense and beautifully paced 70-minute production, which features a fine and touching performance from Ashleigh More as the boy and a truly outstanding one from David Mackay as the man, or “the father”.

Every aspect of the production, from Katy Wilson’s design and Matt Elliott’s sound design to the wonderful crow animations by Kate Charter and Claire Lamono, seems quietly disciplined to serve the onward pulse of the narrative; and at the end, as the sick and stricken man increasingly imagines the boy as the son he has lost, we begin to feel that we have been watching a true tragedy for our times, brief, unpretentious, but brilliantly conceived and beautifully made. - JOYCE MCMILLAN

Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 13-15 September, and on tour to St Andrews, Stirling, Greenock, Paisley, Banchory, Findhorn and Banff, until 29 September.