The Straw Chair

In Plays, Regional theatre, Reviews by Thom DibdinLeave a Comment

✭✭✭✭✩    Ragged glory

Traverse: Thurs 23 – Sat 25 April 2015

There is a warm and thoughtful core to The Straw Chair at the Traverse that sometimes seems in danger of being overpowered by a particularly remarkable performance.

Sue Glover’s play was first staged in one of the Traverse’s previous homes in 1989. Apart from a solitary 1993 production, this version, by Borderline and Hirtle Productions, is the first time the play has been seen again.

Selina Boyack. Photo: John Johnson

It should certainly be back again sooner next time, as not only is it an intriguing work, it contains a part that lends itself to the kind of stunning performance Selina Boyack turns in here.

She is the play’s dominant figure – Rachel, Lady Grange, who has been exiled to St Kilda by her apparently Jacobite-sympathising bigwig of a husband in the 1730s. Her story is one of those that seems so strange it is a surprise to discover it is based largely on fact.

When she is discovered on the otherwise Gaelic-speaking island by the newly-arrived minister from Edinburgh and his young bride, it is clear she has been ill treated, and like so many women of the era has no real power, but also seems to have contributed to her own downfall.

This ambiguity is part of what makes the character so interesting. Stuck in what she considers a ‘hellhole’ (although the other outsiders may not come to share her opinion), with the homemade chair of the title being her only link to what she considers civilisation, she gives vent to an extraordinary array of emotions, grievances and elemental impulses.

glittering

It is a mutifaceted role, that thoroughly dominates proceedings. Certainly unstable, but equally certainly much put-upon, her anger and spite are given full rein by Boyack. Yet there is also a deep truth in there; a poetry that is as ragged as the distressed remains of her town finery, but is as glittering as it is abrasive.

Selina Boyack. Photo: John Johnson

Lady Grange appearing on the seashore with feathers in her hair cannot help reminding the audience of Lear. This could have been a real hostage to fortune, but here it seems entirely appropriate. To describe the performance as a force of nature, while apt, would be to underplay the intelligence, consideration and humour on display.

So charged is Boyack’s performance that it threatens to torpedo the rest of the play. The clever but minimal ‘touring’ set, Liz Carruthers’s thoughtful direction and some much more gentle performances all work on their own terms, but energy levels drop alarmingly when Her Ladyship is not on stage.

The missionary couple from Edinburgh, Pamela Reid’s Isabel and Martin McBride’s Aneas, have some touching moments, but the parallels between their lives and Rachel’s are somewhat lost in the maelstrom that is Lady Grange. Furthermore, McBride’s character sometimes seems like an afterthought, embodying the rigidly pious man of the cloth that has been seen so often on Scottish stages without seeming to add anything new.

Gaelic-tinged magic realism

Reid is much more able to hold her own against Boyack, as is Ceit Kearney as Lady Grange’s minder Oona, who provides much of the effectively used Gaelic song.

The combination between Gaelic-tinged magic realism and more earthbound Lowland pragmatism is a little forced at times, and some of the closing exchanges are unsatisfactory.

Nevertheless, it is heartening to have a revival of another Glover work – one that is important, not least for opportunity it gives the performer playing Lady Rachel. This is an opportunity Boyack seizes with both hands, with a performance that deserves the widest possible audience.

Running time 2 hours 15 mins including interval
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street EH1 2ED
Thursday 23 – Saturday 25 April 2015
Evenings 7.30 pm
Tickets and information from www.traverse.co.uk
Borderline website: www.borderlinetheatre.co.uk

The Straw Chair on tour: 23-25 April Edinburgh
Traverse 0131 228 1404 Book online 28 April Paisley
Arts Centre 0300 300 1210 Book online 29 April Ayr
Gaiety Theatre 01292 288 235 Book online 30 April Kirkcaldy
Adam Smith Theatre 01592 583 302 Book online 01 May Selkirk
Bowhill Theatre 01750 22204 Book online 02 May Musselburgh
Brunton Theatre 0131 665 2240 Book online 07 May Great Bernera
Community Centre 01851 612 411 Book online 08 May Isle of Tarbert
Community Centre 07584 578 759 Book online 09 May South Uist
Stoneybridge Hall 01878 700 154 Book online

ENDS

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Thom Dibdin
Thom Dibdin has been reviewing and writing about theatre in Scotland since the last millennium. He is currently Scotland Correspondent for The Stage newspaper. In 2010, he founded AllEdinburghTheatre.com. The city's only dedicated theatre website, it covers all Edinburgh theatre year-round - and all theatre made in Edinburgh during EdFringe. Thom is passionate about quality in theatre criticism and is a member of the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland. He tweets from @AllEdinTheatre and, personally, from @ThomDibdin.

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