Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh – until 7 November 2017
Christmas theatre has come early and in the darkest of garb to the Assembly Roxy as the 3rd year MGA acting students give an intriguing account of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Ash Girl. This is Cinderella by another name, and Wertenbaker goes beyond the glitter and the glib happy ending in the source to create a version which picks out the darkness and the morality of the tale.
It is never quite as bleak as it might be, however, as Caitlin Skinner’s direction finds the humanity and depth to the characters. The setting has an ageless feel to it, despite clear contemporary resonances, and it is poverty which it the main motivating factor, not evil.
Michaela Sweeney as the Ash Girl is a studiedly depressed individual. Her mother died long-since and she wandered the world with her father – her best friend – until he decided without consulting her to stay at her new mother’s house. And then he disappeared, saying he had to fight his inner demons.
As the step mother, Sophie Harris seems a reasonable person. She doesn’t deny Ash her place in the household, it is Ash’s own depression and fear of the limelight which does that, as she hides among the still warm ashes. It is an image that Sweeney exploits to great effect, the ashes are where she feels safe.
Ash’s step-sisters are not inherently evil or even wicked, prancing around eating dry bread but dreaming of exotic food. Kathryn Thomson’s Ruth just wants to be an artist, painting decaying animals.
Nor is the magnificent Aimee Izatt’s Judith truly vile. So, she wants to cut the legs off ants to see if they still move and open up frogs, but how else is this budding scientist to learn when all her mother wants her to do is marry a prince.
Even the Prince has a contemporary twist. His mother, the Princess Sehra, has been widowed and exiled from the great plains where their family had power. The locals don’t want to know and the invitation to the ball is her way of getting to know the new neighbours.
Petra Stolfa gives Sehra a solid dignity to Stewart O’Neill’s more firebrand sense of injustice as Prince Amir who disdains everyone in his new country and Ben Taylor’s creation of a more practical best friend, Paul.
With this depiction of frail rather than dysfunctional characters, there is need for a true malevolence. For this, Wertenbaker anthropomorphises the seven deadly sins as animals in the dense forest which lies on the way to the Prince’s house.
People are not inherently evil, it is the whispers of these sins which make them so… And not to forget an eighth great malevolence – Sadness, which seeps into the Ash Girl’s being. Sophie Anderson has the look, but could find a lot more viciousness; There is a bite to her lines which needs articulating and giving the same snap and curled-lip sneer that Anderson invests in her physical characterisation.
And here, perhaps, is where this solid and quite satisfying production could begin to fly. There is a lot more to the characters than is given in the script and thankfully Skinner has decided not to invest the traditional baddies with more obvious social problems. Which means that there needs to a deal more complexity here. Only Izatt’s Ruth – and to some extent O’Neill’s Amir – hint at a deeper dichotomy.
That said, there is a huge amount going on in the stage. Live music, performed by several of the actors, underscores the action and is added to with the judicious use of that evergreen trick of singing chart hits in an anachronistic style – notably a delightful and hilarious Can’t Stop The Feeling.
The storytelling is always clear, despite a lot of doubling and having the whole eleven-strong cast on stage and visible throughout. And the transformation scene is neatly staged, with the minimum of fuss.
On the night Æ was in the cast coped easily with the loss of actor Alistair Kerr, who was ill. With no understudies, his various roles had to be read in by Martin Dempsey. However, there might have been a certain depth lost as these included, crucially, the father figure.
All told, a solid offering delivered on a suitably drab but functional set – but with just enough tinge of magic- which would make a very satisfying alternative Christmas offering.