To watch Martin McCormick’s Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths at the Tron is to be overwhelmed by echoes of 20th century art-house theatre at its most absurd, surreal, comic and menacing. Pinter, Beckett, Sartre, Ionesco, Joe Orton and Philip Ridley – they’re all present, somewhere, in his vision of a strange elderly couple, holed up in their squalid flat and apparently terrified of the outside world, who find themselves suddenly playing host to a young woman rescued by Pa on his weekly trip to the shops.
Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths, Tron, Glasgow ****
Fat Friends, King’s, Glasgow ****
When it comes to the development of the idea, though, the play Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths most closely resembles is Edward Albee’s American Dream, which has a very different New York aesthetic, but also dwells on an isolated and mutually obsessed older couple obsessed with their lost babies, and reacting to a younger visitor. Pa’s nightmare vision of the destruction of his children forms a strange, blindingly vivid climax to McCormick’s play; and despite being very ancient, with a rope of white hair, Ma appears to be pregnant, with yet another little mouth.
And despite the 60-year history of this kind of drama on British stages, what is striking is that it still seems to contribute something vital – although never popular or comforting – to our understanding of the world we live in. McCormick’s play touches on the major contemporary theme of domestic paranoia in what’s often perceived to be an increasingly threatening outside world, and gives a rich, deep, satirically Scottish dimension to Ma and Pa’s nostalgia for a past now gone beyond reach; and it’s handled with unfailing brilliance by Andy Arnold and a superb Tron team, led by Gerry Mulgrew and Karen Dunbar in a pair of faultless performances as Pa and Ma - dry, brutal, funny, occasionally poignant, mad as snakes, and brilliantly tuned to the strand of pure Scottish absurdism in McCormick’s powerful comic dialogue. Nalini Chetty is also impeccable as the young woman Pa saves from her mysterious pursuers. And with Charlotte Lane offering a memorably claustrophobic and dilapidated set, brilliantly lit by Dave Shea, Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths offers a memorable 70 minutes of comedy and nightmare; and a glimpse of a domestic madness that seems both utterly bizarre, and – in the age of Trump and Putin –strangely familiar.
Kay Mellor’s new musical Fat Friends, by contrast, could hardly adopt a more familiar or reassuring format for its comic take on life in contemporary Britain - although it is just possible, with a tweak of the accent from Scotland to Yorkshire, to imagine Ma and Pa holed up in one of the upper rooms of Bretta Gerecke’s jolly set, designed to conjure up a parade of shops in Headingley that now mainly features greasy fast-food outlets.
Based on her popular Leeds-set television comedy of the early 2000’s, Mellor’s musical tells the tale of chubby, curvaceous Kelly who wants to fit into a particular gorgeous wedding dress for the big day when she marries Kevin, her hapless but lovely fiancé; and of the physical and psychological hazards that she and Kevin face when she’s talked into joining her middle-aged Mum at the slimming classes run by lovely local wedding-shop owner Lauren, under the management of one Julia Fleshman, owner of a frightening big-bucks slimming empire.
Needless to say, it all turns out happily before the final curtain, although the happy ending is too brief, sudden and unexplained for its own good. Jodie Prenger is perfect as Kelly, singing like a Yorkshire working-class angel; and she receives strong support not only from Scotland’s own Elaine C Smith as her Mum – singing a terrific, complex maternal aria called If You Don’t Want To Marry Him – and a hard-working 17-strong cast, but from a hugely energetic and likeable score of 18 original songs written by Mellor with Nick Lloyd Webber. And if the show is finally 20 minutes too long for its own story, at a full two and three-quarter hours, that’s perhaps not a bad fault, in a good-hearted tale well told by a memorably enthusiastic cast, who give Mellor’s show their very best shot.
Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 12 May, and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 15-19 May. Fat Friends at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 21-26 May