Alma Forsyth, Beverley Wright, Brian Neill, Claire Wood, Edinburgh Fringe, EGTG, Feminism, Gregor Haddow, Helen Goldie, Rachel Drury, Ruth Davidson, skirt by Claire Wood, The Royal Scots Club, Theatre Review
I am in the remote Highlands of the Fringe this evening and at a venue that is as plush as a laird’s hunting lodge. At the Royal Scots Club, there are thousands of portraits of men in regimental costume lining the walls. It vaguely feels as if we should all sing “God Save the Queen” before the play starts. This venue is soft, achingly comfortable, and immensely suburban, and one fears slightly for what it is doing to the Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group. Mightn’t they have more edge if they were installed in an altogether edgier venue?
The EGTG’s Claire Wood wrote last year’s bouncing “beauty.” Her new play, “skirt,” can be likewise added to my growing naughty list of productions that inexplicably eschew capitalisation. Becs (Helen Goldie), the leader of the Scottish opposition, is offered a chance to be made the UK’s Prime Minister. So far, so Ruth Davidson, but Becs is a single mother rather than a lesbian and she has also got her own mother in tow with early onset Alzheimer’s.
In forcing Becs to choose between power and her family commitments, this play’s conclusion is essentially in its premise. Becs’ dilemma is irreconcilable, since, as a matriarch, she has to carry all of the onerousness of family worry with her up the slippery pole. You often hear feminists complaining about the injustice of this, but “skirt” shows rather than tells, and Becs’ frustration is convincingly relayed to us.
“skirt” luxuriates in a diverse cast and one that looks like a huge happy family. It is larger than the casts of the last five Fringe plays that I have seen put together. The story begins with a birthday party, a spectacular, Hogarthian sprawl. A private meeting between Becs and her political cronies, on the other hand, is inset into an alcove stage behind the party, so that it looks as though it is showing on an unwatched television.
This is innovative and visually impressive, but something soon goes wrong with the dialogue in the foreground. Everybody is speaking carefully and in turn, so that each partygoer chips in equally. I have been to a lot of parties and when thirteen people are drinking in a room together, let me tell you, it actually sounds greatly louder and more chaotic than this. I confess that the creeping artificiality of the scene began to distract me. There are nonetheless plenty of eye-catching performances to watch. Alma Forsyth is somehow both miraculously sprightly and doddering as the ailing mother; Rachel Dury puts in a keen performance as Becs’ friend, Nina, whose own parenting is in meltdown. Gregor Haddow (who had starred in “beauty”) brings some of his Herne the Hunter magnetism to the stage as Becs’ would-be partner Toby. He is clearly a Michelle Obama or a Hillary Clinton who is biding his time. A man cushioned in harmless power, he is always very gentle around everybody and yet we can see that his eyes continue to glint.
In the end, “skirt” offers the rather complacent predicament of a soap opera episode. Should Becs stay or should she go? Wood’s writing is usually witty when it steers clear of this televisual moralising, but the play finally disintegrates once it gets on to the politics. Becs’ political party is run by crass, cigar-stuffed, behind-the-scenes fixers – a retro caricature that simply won’t pass muster anymore after it was refreshed by The Thick of It. Moreover, although it is said of Becs that she is popular with the public, she is conspicuously not a part of the populist wave that is currently sweeping technocracy away. She has fought a campaign to introduce trousers as girls’ school uniform. Politics is far bigger than this these days and we surely know by now that Becs is just choosing between two different sorts of relatively comfortable powerlessness.