Leith Dockers Club, Edinburgh – until 15 June 2017
There’s a braw bundle of insight to be had in Citadel Arts Group’s double bill of plays that explore some of the varying aspects of the women of Leith’s relationships with the sea. In Dazzle, inspired by the Dazzle ship which was at Leith Docks as part of last year’s Arts Festival, playwright Alan Mountfield depicts the life Eva Mackenzie from North Berwick, who studied art in Edinburgh and ended up working as a designer for the Admiralty in World War One.
Then in In Whit Aboot the Wimmen, Jim Brown imagines what it might have been like waiting for your man to come back from a year-long tour on a whaling ship. Focussing on the very last whaling expedition to return, in 1963.
The details of Eva Mackenzie’s life before, during and after the First World War, makes for a great story. She studied at Edinburgh Art College, making friends with Newhaven artist Lizzie MaBride. They later signed up as an ambulance drivers, ferrying dying men back from the front. The horrors were too much and they returned to London – where they got work with Norman Wilkinson who was just setting up a workshop to prove his dazzle ship concept.
Mountfield had open access to Eva’s letters home and has used them wisely. He has given Andrea McKenzie plenty of material to build a properly rounded character in Eva. McKenzie makes Eva sympathetic, but she is not all heroic strength and fortitude, and has her own human failings.
There’s less strength to his writing of Lizzie, however, and Megan Fraser does a superb job to overcome – and smooth-out – what can, at times, be a horribly lumpy script. But Mountfield does a lot more right than that which could be improved, and she is a strongly sympathetic and engaging character with a bit of bite, too.
The concept behind the brightly-painted dazzle ships was not camouflage, but to trick the viewer’s eye as to the way they were moving through the sea. By creating an optical illusion, U-Boats needed longer on the surface to take a bearing before firing off their torpedoes.
Eva’s story serves a similarly distracting purpose, as the play focusses on the details of how Wilkinson – previously famous for a painting on the Titanic – came up with the idea, while protecting convoys in the Mediterranean.
Director Liz Hare has finessed it well, however, and brings out a trio of very fine performances from her main characters. Charles Donnelly is particularly strong as Norman Wilkinson, finding a strong feeling of humility while not wavering from the social attitudes of men in that era.
Gregor Davidson is left to provide a series of pretty basic caricatures, from Lizzie’s sweetheart, a Newhaven fisherman Rab, to King George V. If he doesn’t play them only for their comedy, but there is certainly a glint in his eye.
Ultimately, this is a great story well told. If Mountfield rather tries to cram too much surrounding fact in to his script and ends up with episodes rather than a narrative arc, it just indicates that there is material enough for a longer version.
There is an air of the bawdy Scots comedy to Jim Brown’s script for Whit Aboot the Wimmen. Which director Mark Kydd makes no attempt to dispel. In fact, he actively promotes it by casting Charlie West as young whaler Joe, who has had too much of a skin-full after being paid off from his first whaling expedition and is in the arms of a shore-side street girl rather than his fiancé, Annie.
West finds both comedy and a deeper meaning to the character, while playing drunk in the most convincing manner.
But as the title suggests, this isn’t about the men. Their characters in the play exist only to help provide colour and depth to the environment in which the two main characters exist.
That is Rachael Keiller as Annie, who is a grown woman but still lives at home with her mum – and dad when he is on shore – and who is beginning to have doubts about the path she has set out for herself in marrying a whaler and bringing up a family in Leith.
And Laverne Edmonds as her mum, who has a strongly traditional outlook on her life. But is still looking forward to her husband’s return with the anticipation of her own pleasures being satisfied – much to her daughter’s distaste.
Both put in great performances, but Edmonds is really the one to watch. She creates a properly nuanced character for the older woman of the piece, without dropping into cliches or playing it for laughs which aren’t there. Yes, she is unremarkable in many ways, but that is part of what is remarkable about it.
Charles Donnelly returns as Grandad, a foolish but happy many who is over-fond of recounting his ailments and pointing out that it’s a tot of rum which will help cure them. Donnelly makes the most of the role, playing the laughs but never hogging the stage.
The portrayal of Annie’s best pal Shona is less successful. Kirsty Punton looks more as if she had dropped in from a Jean Luc Godard movie rather than come to stay as her own father is on a drunken bender. But she does serve the dynamic well,
There is excellent direction from Kydd, who uses the split-level space well, and keeps the whole narrative clear, reminding that Leith was a place of hard physical work, of drinking, overt prostitution and violence.