Ageing, Annabel Thomson, Crime, Dan Tunstall, Edinburgh Fringe, Ellie Scanlan, Ghost Story, Joshua Val Martin, Senility, Spaces on North Bridge, Strangeways, Theatre Review, University of Manchester Drama Society
[The following contains spoilers.]
“Strangeways” is an ambitious and entertaining new play from the University of Manchester’s Drama Society. It has been written by Joshua Val Martin and it is currently premiering at the Space on North Bridge. Rather like Alan Bennett, Val Martin is a connoisseur of older women, or at least in an artistic sense. Like Bennett, he is a student of their mannerisms and of how they tell stories. This may be unfashionable, but I find it to be agreeably so. The life of his heroine Dot (Ellie Scanlan) is not undramatic, but the point of this play is to admire the detail rather than the depths of her character.
“Strangeways” would be more authentic and shocking if Dot really was played by an older woman. Scanlan provides no sense of an older woman’s vulnerability, and one can imagine a more sophisticated production building upon the potential unease between this doddery character and the ghost of her cocksure young husband (Dan Tunstall). We also end up playing truant from this play’s chosen theme of domestic violence, with Dot jokily pronouncing that she had stabbed her husband over twenty times purely out of self-protection. The pinnacle of this silliness is the mangled stuffed cat which Dot dotes over and feeds Jaffa Cakes (and yes, there are canned meows).
Yet “Strangeways” trades in the opportunity to be profound for something which is instead rather like camp. Scanlan’s performance is strangely gorgeous, but she cannot be allowed to go mincing through this play like Kenneth Williams, and so she becomes more recognisably human once she is cowed. This is necessary in order to avoid the impression that we are laughing at somebody who is senile. Although Dot’s carer (Annabel Thomson) represents the comic heavy artillery, her shiny-faced impersonations of Dot’s relatives are essentially uncanny. At its best “Strangeways” captures the anxious delirium of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, in which a drug-addled housewife was terrorised by people who danced out of her television.
Whether by accident or because it is the lie of the land, Tychy has not encountered much by way of good new student drama over the course of this Fringe. With “Strangeways” things are looking up.