Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh – until 13 May 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Time, change, dependence and human frailty are explored with emotion in the world premiere of Charlie Sonata at the Lyceum. Three friends from university in the 1990s occasionally stage reunions that show how two of them – Gary and Jackson – have moved on to careers and respectability (or something approximating to them), while Chick remains a drifting figure, wedded to alcohol. An accident to Gary’s daughter, however, gives Chick a chance at finding a purpose.
Douglas Maxwell’s play moves constantly in time, from a booze-filled nightmarish present, to an equally booze-filled youth. The 90s scenes are full of Britpop, phonecards and the coming of New Labour, but the fractured time-scheme and themes of sacrifice are more redolent of Donnie Darko than Cool Britannia.
We are told repeatedly that time travel is ‘non-negotiable’, but here it seems non-essential – the constant moving back and forward serves little dramatic purpose. This is reinforced by Robbie Gordon’s narrator figure constantly telling us where and when we are – something we could easily work out for ourselves. Gordon is a wonderfully guileless, sympathetic figure, but there is little reason for his presence; his refrain of ‘can this be right?’ is all too appropriate.
There is far too much padding in a play that would have been at least as effective at much less than its current interval-free two hours. Parallels with Sleeping Beauty would similarly have far more impact if they did not feel so overdone. Within this baggy structure, there is a great deal to admire. Maxwell’s script has a flinty humour and considerable poetry, and Matthew Lenton’s direction is beautifully expressive. Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s design and Kai Fischer’s lighting create a starkly beautiful backdrop.
The performances, moreover, are largely impressive. Kevin Lennon and Robert Jack, as Chick’s old Stirling University buddies, are believably complex and conflicted, while Meg Fraser’s manic Meredith, Chick’s fairytale-fixated, self-appointed guardian angel, is touching and worrying. Kirstin McLean, as the injured girl’s mother, is so good at her couple of big moments that you wish she had more to do.
The whole show revolves around Chick, however, who would rather be ‘Charlie Sonata’ like his father and grandfather instead of the more workaday Scottish nickname he is saddled with. Sandy Grierson’s shambling, shaking portrait of a man overtaken by alcohol is thoroughly disquieting, unsentimental and utterly captivating, with the eye constantly drawn to him.
There are still problems with the character, however. We are told that he was a man of real poetry, promise and talent, yet even with the time-travel element, there is no proof of this – in the scenes depicting the friends’ youth, the others have the ideas, while Chick merely nods.
His profundity elsewhere seems largely limited to analysing the best ways to get drunk. The scenes featuring Chick’s time in London, meanwhile, are oddly judged, with a jarring tone and some strange performances.
There are some deeply felt and emotional moments here, with a bittersweet magic-realist tone that works very well when it cuts through its somewhat messy surroundings. Inside here, there is a deeply personal, thoroughly human and wonderfully theatrical core struggling to get out. Unfortunately, there is too much extraneous material for that core to have the impact it might.