In a village where people live by tradition, a young woman is restless. She’s not unhappy in her marriage to the local ploughman, Pony William; yet she has this strange need to be always naming and describing things – the look of a tree as the wind shivers through it, or the difference between a muddy puddle and a clear one that reflects the sky. And when she sees the much-hated local miller writing down his thoughts in a book, she reacts first with fury, then with growing fascination; she begins to see how words can both create and destroy, and to find her own voice.
Knives in Hens, Perth Theatre ****
The Match Box, Byre Theatre, St. Andrews ****
Company, Aberdeen Arts Centre ***
This is the starting-place for David Harrower’s 1995 debut drama Knives In Hens, as powerful and timeless as the idea of language itself; and in Lu Kemp’s slow-moving but beautiful production at Perth Theatre – featuring the wonderful Jessica Hardwick as the young woman, Michael Moreland as the miller, and Rhys Rusbatch as Pony William – the play emerges partly as a writer’s story, about how the need for self-expression can drive its way through the thickest layers of social tradition and customary silence.
On Jamie Vartan’s beautiful circular set – like the inner core of the mill – Simon Wilkinson’s lighting design offers a blue glow suddenly split by streams of gold, like an image of enlightenment; if the space encourages a little too much standing around and declamatory talking, the strange, haunting poetry of Harrower’s text rings through loud and clear. And in these times, it’s also hard to avoid the searing gender politics of the piece, as Pony William’s brutally utilitarian and patriarchal attitude to his wife finally contributes to his own destruction; in a story that’s partly about how the human mind and spirit strives towards new frontiers, and partly about a young woman coming to reject her given role as chattel and helpmeet, and to start writing her own life.
The speaker in Frank McGuinness’s 2012 monologue The Match Box is also a woman alone in a rural community; but here, Sal’s isolation is a response to a brutal external shock, which has ripped her out of the rhythm of normal human life, and plunged her into hell.
The only child of an Irish family in a northern English city, Sal is the single mum of a daughter who dies violently, by blind chance; the loss destroys not only her daughter but her parents, and leaves her living alone on the Irish island from which they came, among a community that would rather see her gone.
In Richard Baron’s quietly impressive touring production for Firebrand Theatre, Janet Coulson gives an outstanding performance as Sal, holding the audience spellbound over 85 minutes with what could be a familiar story of unassuageable loss; but is lifted by the sheer magnificence of McGuinness’s writing into a relentless and brilliant tragedy that allows no happy endings, or conventional comfort.
The hero of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 show Company is one of the most famous loners on the musical stage, an affluent New Yorker of 40 or so, surrounded by married friends, who somehow can’t really get it together with any of the women he dates. Now, Sondheim’s Bobby makes an appearance at Aberdeen Arts Centre in a fine small-scale production by Aberdeen-born producer-director Derek Anderson, staged as part of the current heroic effort to get AAC going again as a major part of the city’s creative scene.
The problem with Company is that despite the sheer fast-talking psychological brilliance of Sondheim’s lyrics, the story has dated. 48 years on, single men don’t sit by the phone, but hang out on the internet; social isolation is no longer the exception, but a new normal.
With choreographer Lee Crowley, Anderson and his 14-strong cast do the show full justice; Oliver Savile makes a good-looking, attractive Robert, and some of the stronger songs in a slightly monotonous score – the wistful love-song Barcelona, the searing Ladies Who Lunch – achieve real emotional power.
There are dozens of musicals, though, that would strike more of a chord at the moment than this 70’s litany of first world problems; it’s well done, but it leaves us not much the wiser about why it’s being done at all.
Knives in Hens and Company both run until 10 February. The Match Box tours to Birnam Arts Centre, 7 February, Heart of Hawick, 9-10 February, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 13-17 February, and Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow 20-24 February.