Theatre review: The Last Bordello | Pressure | It’s Behind You

The Last Bordello plays with layers of performance and reality
The Last Bordello plays with layers of performance and reality
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First, a health warning; do not go anywhere near this latest show from David Leddy and Fire Exit if you do not like blisteringly frank sexual language, plenty of partial nudity, a hint of outright blasphemy, and shows that play with layers of performance and reality until the audience has no idea which end is up.

Tron, Glasgow ****

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Oran Mor, Glasgow ***

One glance at The Last Bordello – at the Tron Theatre this weekend and the Traverse next week – is enough to suggest why, in a timid and box-ticking age, Leddy and his company are currently locked in a dispute with Creative Scotland over the withdrawal of their modest but vital regular funding. Apart from a fierce queer sensibility that would hardly have dared to speak its name a generation ago, it’s a show that woos no audience, defies any idea of good taste, and boldly sets up shop on the outer limits of workable theatre. Yet you are unlikely to see anything more vivid in Scottish theatre this year; and long after the final sharp blackout falls, you will find yourself pondering its weird, disruptive presence.

Inspired by the life and times of the famous thief, whore, rebel and playwright Jean Genet, The Last Bordello is set – well, where? Initially, the characters say that they are in Gaza, the world’s current archetypal war zone; the brothel is about to be bombed or bulldozed in the morning, so they – five inmates and one shy client, Mitri – will spend the night recounting their founding myths, and possibly relieving Mitri of his virginity. Many of their stories, though, revolve around The Master, Genet himself, and his legendary early life in a Barcelona brothel; eventually, they admit that they are not in Gaza but in Barcelona, although in tones that suggest they are really somewhere around Dennistoun. And always, they are play-acting, role-playing, and acting out sexual fantasies, in layer upon layer of confusion, often reading from little badly-written scripts that the characters are supposed to have prepared for themselves.

Some of this, it has to be said, hardly works; some of the cast struggle to find an acting style that encompasses the show’s odd mix of satirical ferocity and self-consciously amateurish re-enactment. The whole show looks fabulous, though, in Becky Minto’s design of white drapes shot with red, blue and glaring white light. Danny Krass’s soundscape is brilliant, brusque and apocalyptic; and with Vari Sylvester in magnificently weird form as the charwoman turned mistress of ceremonies, The Last Bordello emerges as a show that takes no prisoners – or if it does, only uses the kind of handcuffs that are made to remind us how power, pleasure, oppression and violence remain linked, in our troubled sexual imaginations.

At the King’s Theatre, meanwhile, Edinburgh audiences can enjoy a show that, by utter contrast, demonstrates just how compelling a polite, well-made and completely conventional play can be, given a fine story, and some understated but beautiful writing. David Haig’s Pressure – first seen in Edinburgh in 2014, in the same Lyceum-Chichester co-production – tells the real-life story of John Stagg, the Scottish meteorologist who, in June 1944, was called to General Eisenhower’s headquarters on the south coast of England to provide the weather forecast that would determine the success or failure of the D-Day landings. Pressure is hardly the word; and although we all know the ending, the sheer drama of the story, and the quiet subtlety with which Haig – who also plays Stagg – draws the three central characters of Stagg, Eisenhower, and the general’s devoted English driver Kay Summersby, makes for a completely gripping theatre experience.

Like The Last Bordello – and unlike Pressure – the play that opens the 2018 Play, Pie And Pint season at Oran Mor also dwells on the subject of theatre itself, in this case the tragi-comic fate of a fading pantomime Dame, conjured up by Aberdeen dame and top panto writer Alan McHugh.

At one level, It’s Behind You offers a predictable dialogue between youth and experience, and yet another bout of theatrical navel-gazing on a theatre scene that already sees too much of it. Yet in Ian Grieve’s production, McHugh and Paul James Corrigan turn in two enjoyable and sometimes courageous performances, full of the kinds of family betrayals and tensions all of us can recognise, whether we have ever trodden the boards, or not.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

The Last Bordello at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, tonight, and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 20-24 February. Pressure and It’s Behind You, final performances today.