Catherine Cowdrey, Edinburgh Fringe, Fiona Primrose, Henry V, Jacob Taylor, Jacqueline Wheble, Laura Crow, Laura Crow's Greyhounds, The Spaces on the Mile, Theatre Review, Tim Cooper, Time & Again Theatre, William Shakespeare, World War Two
It is the first Saturday night and the Fringe is already worryingly engorged. All of these people are fine out on the streets, I tell myself, but supposing that they discover the venues. Everything will be sold out! Luckily, these crowds look like they think that the Fringe is somehow purely a festival of street food, open air bars, and busking. They are like tourists who have slipped into a cathedral to appreciate the architecture. So far, there are still enough confessionals and prayer cushions free.
My destination this evening is the Space on the Mile and “Greyhounds,” a new play by Laura Crow. “Greyhounds” initially agrees to resemble a well-worn form of farce in which some characters are rehearsing for a play-within-a-play and they all get into a comical muddle. The flouncing director, Ruby (Catherine Cowdrey), might put you in mind of Lynda Snell trying to organise a pantomime in The Archers. But this time the play is Henry V, the characters are on “the Home Front” in 1941, and the intended audience are a war effort that needs pepping up. The title, incidentally, is a Shakespeare reference rather than a WW2 one (“I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips/Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot”).
You might think that the cast of “Greyhounds” are all hankering to be Dad’s Army, and that they have accepted their parts as an apprenticeship whilst they are still too young. With the roundedness of the characters and their status as a hapless gang, this play is certainly leaning in that direction. Yet although “Greyhounds” is not tight-fisted when it comes to supplying the laughs, the floor soon falls out of the comedy, and the play then proceeds as a rather more complex and earnest drama.
With some almost dreamlike surrealism, the play-within-the-play sees five actors, three of them actresses, trying to evoke the fifty or so parts within Henry V. Each of these players is in themselves, however, a repertoire of different or contradictory roles. Katherine (Crow) has the melancholic humour of a Shakespearean villain along with a latent romantic sensibility. Edward (Tim Cooper) is a mixture of stuffy patriot and haunted coward. Jacob (Will Croft), Nancy (Fiona Primrose) and Ruby likewise juggle their own comical and tragic masks. When set against a war effort in which everybody had to live in a kind of simple-minded communism, egging each other on to an ever greater austerity, with rationed bathwater and recycled tea leaves, “Greyhounds” reasserts the basic human dignity of individualism.
Katherine is the show-stealer – she gets the best lines and delivers them with the most aplomb. I would say that this character also looks the most stylish, but I couldn’t make up my mind about this in the end. She is presumably autistic in some way and the script repeatedly mines the attendant social awkwardness for laughs, until these bumps assume a place that would have been filled by malapropisms in another play. Does she have a spare cigarette? Yes, there are five in the packet [silence]. Katherine’s circumstances cannot ever smoothly align with the war effort – she cannot “act” the role that society has given her – but this never becomes a crisis. The war effort will ultimately require her and she can fit in when it most matters.
By the by, the writer of “Greyhounds” bears the cross of OCD and the director, Jacqueline Wheble, is an inspiring educator who works with autistic children. This play does a lot more, though, than simply reflect a certain type of pathology. It beautifully masters and combines both the Bard and the aesthetic minutiae of WW2. It is funny and interesting and very elegantly so.