Theatre reviews: Birdsong | Hot Water | Mental

Birdsong the play is almost as moving, intense and beautiful as the novel
Birdsong the play is almost as moving, intense and beautiful as the novel
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WHEN I first saw Birdsong Productions’ touring version of this stage adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s intense and acclaimed 1993 novel Birdsong, the year was 2013, it was the day of Margaret Thatcher’s death, and I felt that it was the kind of self-absorbed and romantic commemoration of the First World War that we could well do without; a show that foregrounded the sensibilities of a young officer involved in a passionate affair with the wife of his French host in Amiens, while leaving “the men” – in the time-honoured fashion of the British working-class – to provide a plucky and sometimes humorous backdrop to the romantic narratives of the people who really matter.

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh **** | Oran Mor, Glasgow **** | Tron Theatre, Glasgow ****

Hot Waters' Annie is played with her usual wit and intelligence by the great Janette Foggo

Hot Waters' Annie is played with her usual wit and intelligence by the great Janette Foggo

Over those five years of intense commemoration of 1914-18, though, either the play has changed, or I have; because the version that appears at the King’s Theatre this week is almost as intense, moving and beautiful as the novel itself, lacking any trace of self-indulgence, and so fiercely contemptuous of the war that devours its two central characters – the young officer Stephen Wraysford and the sapper sergeant Jack Firebrace – that its bleak final scene, without any whisper of patriotic flag-waving or talk of victory, fairly takes the breath away.

This latest version of the show is certainly much shorter than the original, at well under two and a half hours; but in that space, it gives full and equal weight to both of its heroes, brilliantly played by Tom Kay and Tim Treloar, as well as to Stephen’s damaged love Isabelle, played with grief-stricken complexity by Madeleine Knight. And this time, the central message of this fine story rings out loud and clear: that toxic forms of male-dominated culture eventually kill our young men, as well as abusing and imprisoning women; and that even those who somehow survive the resulting horrors are often consumed by them, for the rest of their lives.

It’s a far more everyday horror that forms the subject of Steven Dick’s new Play, Pie And Pint drama Hot Water, based on a real-life incident involving his own family; but still, it’s one we are all at increased risk of confronting. The play’s sole character, Annie – played with her usual wit, passion and intelligence by the great Janette Foggo – is a lively, independent elderly lady who has a family but doesn’t see too much of them, avoids cloying friendships, and enjoys her dangerous but thrilling hobby of wild swimming.

It’s in her own much-loved bath at home, though, that she comes to grief, banging her head and breaking her hip, and lying there helpless for four days and nights, not knowing whether anyone will notice her absence, or whether this will be the end of her. Her memories are vivid, her spirit remarkable, her stoicism in the face of oblivion a fine, rare and well-observed tribute to the everyday courage of millions of lonely elderly people, in our increasingly atomised society.

In a sense, the practical message of Steven Dick’s play is simple; if you’re an older person, get a mobile phone, and make sure it’s always within reach. The social message, though, is more important; to make sure that you always remain connected enough for people to notice your absence – even if you’re old, and wary of dependency, and pretty well convinced that most people just aren’t worth the bother.

If Hot Water is a first-person monologue about hidden suffering in a fragmented society, Kane Power’s award-winning solo show Mental, at the Tron this week as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, explores the pain associated with mental health problems at one remove, through Power’s real-life experience of severe bipolar disorder in the family.

Co-written with Alice Lamb and Kane’s mother, Kim Power, who has suffered from traumatic bipolar episodes for more than 20 years, Mental is a quietly hard-hitting collage of songs and visual imagery, personal reflection and dry clinical health reports, that explore both the pain of Kim’s illness and the toll it takes on her only child; and although it is not the most spectacular piece of theatre around in Scotland this week, it’s clear that it means more, to many in the audience, than many a more polished show that finally has less to say about the problems that shape and shadow our lives, every ordinary day.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Birdsong at the King’s, Edinburgh, today, and at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 29 May-2 June. Hot Water and Mental, final performances today