I like the aesthetic of Elspeth Turner’s new play “Spectretown” but I am not sure that I buy into the story. The play feels like a misjudgement, as if Turner has staggered back slightly when she should be really sweeping everything before her. Turner’s company Stoirm Òg was last at the Fringe in 2012, with their exciting debut play “The Idiot at the Wall,” (their latest play is established at the Assembly Hall). “Spectretown” places too much of an aesthetic feast on the table to feel like a disappointment, but it is nonetheless a bit flat, a bit too much of a puzzle, to fully satisfy.
It is still an aesthetic feast. The play is performed in Doric not merely to assert that this dialect is innately virtuous, or to create a glow of identity-politics empowerment, but because Turner appears to be genuinely keen to showcase all of the richness and loveliness of this dialect. The first part of the play is set in the North East of Scotland in the nineteenth century. It tells an unusual story about how a secret society of itinerate horsemen exploits their power over the community’s resources to win more rights and respect. As in “The Idiot at the Wall,” superstition is not straightforwardly associated with rural backwardness. Dodie (Mark Wood), who joins the Horseman’s Word and takes inspiration from radical preachers, is also, in his own way, at the vanguard of the trades unions struggle. The superstition remains, however, authentically spooky. There are weird old songs and spells; creepy shadow or shadowy puppetry; and an enjoyable frisson of the diabolical.
The second half of the play is set in modern Aberdeen, in a charity shop. This has practically the same effect as turning on all of the theatre lights. Turner, who is on stage as Dodie’s beloved Meg, is now playing Nan, the daughter of the charity shop owner. Wood is now Stan, an employee. Bridget McCann cuts a successfully complex figure as the half-feisty, half-depleted employer Izzy. The modern-day gang are descended in some way from Dodie. There is a general lapsing of realism in the story and this seems strange because it was never noticeably realistic to begin with. The white-hot agony of Izzy’s injury and the pathetic muddle of Stan’s circumstances never acquire the purchase which realism is obliged to have. The aesthetic power of the story fades to be replaced with just a story, which, it turns out, has to be strenuously explained. There are explanations and revelations aplenty but they are all dispensed in a tone of sagging melodrama.
The original glamour of “Spectretown” is never dispelled. The acting and presentation of the play are always very fine. It is just that a fascinating story has been set before us but never completely brought to life.