This enterprising regional touring company generally focuses on the East, whether John Clare or Arthur Ransome, Viking legends or wartime GI bases. This time it heads improbably to Scotland: to wintry nights . wild fiddlers, echoing skin drums and snowy devilry. Fair enough: like Artistic Director Ivan Cutting I grew up with the border ballads – Tam Lin, the Twa Corbies, shipwrecks and lost foundlings and journeys to satanic underworlds to quarrel with the De’il himself. And folk music is the medium for it: shivers and mysteries wrapped in the convivial warmth of twinkling fiddle-bows and strong singers.
Thus David Greig’s strange play, born in the National Theatre of Scotland and met more often at festivals, was right up my street from the first moment when Hannah Howie sang Scott’s ”My love is like a red red rose”, the lights fell , and the others- Elspeth Turner, Simon Donaldson, and Robin Hemmings – joined in the darker harmony of the Twa Corbies dispassionately observing a slain knight …
“Mony a one for him makes mane
But nane sall ken where he is gane
O’er his white banes, when they are bare
The wind sall blaw for evermair”.
Shiver! But like all tall tales and fireside stories, it has merriment. The story, told mainly in couplet narration shared around the cast with instruments and songs between, is both joke and perceptive psychology, bound up in the legends and intersecting with them in a half-dreamed half-drunk ordeal. Prudencia (Howie) is a prim student of folklore specializing in “the topography of Hell in the border ballads” and irritated at an academic conference where a professor explains Negative Reading, hipster Colin (Hemmings) talks rubbish about Lady Gaga and Facebook updates being as valid as Scottish identity, and Siolaigh (“a posh way to say Sheila”) darkly opines that in a masculine world of borders the river Tweed is a vagina.
But trapped in a snowstorm, Colin and Prudencia take refuge in a noisy pub lockdown with some really alarming Corbies in bird costumes, and being shy in company she hides the the pub lavatory (we’ve all been there) and heads out alone, meets under a sodium streetlamp a singing dead woman and puppet babies, and is taken to her bed and breakfast. Which is, of course, a gate to Hell because what else do you expect on a midwinter’s eve, when the devil lures rash souls who venture abroad?.
The second act, in the b & b eternity, shows Prudencia the essential aridity of some of her scholarship and – one way or another – the essential nature of human contact and love. Donaldson is oddly compelling as the depressed geeky devil who suddenly becomes , the pub-and-house staging rather brilliantly enabling this, an immense goat-skull-headed flying demon following her escape.
It’s done with brio and humour and real shivers, a production Scotland would be proud of and Eastern Angles should be. And as I picked it up on one of his multifarious travelling venues, it possibly also marks the only time the Methodist And United Reformed Hungate Church in Bungay has hosted a vigorous likeness of Hell, albeit in the form of a Kelso b & b. It’s on the road again, far and wide in the East, and touring-mouse offers a thumbs-up.