Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 22 August 2021
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Still at the Traverse is in many ways a tough watch, with themes of death and loss offset by excellent performances and perceptive writing.
Pascal’s contention that most human problems are caused by an inability to sit quietly at home is often trotted out nowadays, especially in terms of geo-political problems and impending climate doom. In Frances Poet’s play, there is a lot of sitting about, at home or elsewhere, but the stillness of the title is more like Thoreau’s ‘quiet desperation’.
Pain and suffering of different kinds dominate the characters’ lives. Gaynor is housebound with fibromyalgia, while Gilly has both a father and a dog that are terminally ill. Gaynor’s son Dougie and his partner Ciara, have their unborn child to consider, while Mick just wants to know why he has woken up on Portobello beach with two gold rings in his pocket.
While this is downbeat enough – and it soon becomes clear that it will not get any brighter – it is not necessarily a depressing watch. Poet’s language is tightly controlled, occasionally bursting forth into sparkling empathy or febrile insight.
It is to Poet’s credit that we are able to sympathise with characters who seem almost wilfully unable to comprehend each other, and the cast are uniformly impressive. Molly Innes (Gaynor) provides a grouchily contrary central figure. Martin Donaghy and Mercy Ojelade give Dougie and Ciara believable life, and Naomi Stirrat (Gilly) portrays the conflicts of someone both too young to face up to what is happening but too old not to.
Gerry Mulgrew, meanwhile, is magnetically troubling as Mick, whose heroically destructive drinking takes on the sheen of a nightmarish Celtic legend. Oguz Kaplangi’s live music is wonderfully effective, while Karen Tennent’s design is endlessly inventive.
Which is part of the problem. The staging becomes increasingly fussy, with far too much moving of furniture and breaks in the action. Like so many plays of 90 minutes straight through, this flags well before the end.
As is usually the case when the links between some of the characters are left deliberately opaque at the start, it is less interesting once the mysteries are resolved. This does not lessen the quality of the writing or acting, but does mean that their impact is diminished.
The direction of Gareth Nicholls, moreover, becomes less sure-footed as the unnecessary breaks in the action pile up. In the end, an intriguingly promising first half is somewhat let down by the conclusion.
At least that promise is there, however. And none of this is as depressing as a summary of the plot makes it sound. Instead, with its all-too-timely focus on loneliness and bereavement, it is deeply human.
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge St, EH1 2ED
Monday 2 – Tuesday 22 August 2021 (not Mon 16)
Daily at either 2.00 pm or 8.00 pm, see website for details
The performance will be available to stream on demand from late August.
Information and tickets at https://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event/still-in-person
Naomi Stirrat and the company of Still by Frances Poet. Photo by Lara Cappelli.