The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart David Greig
National Theatre of Scotland tour
Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh until 19 May, then Mull, Oban & Charleston, South Carolina
**** (4 stars)
Uptight academic Prudencia Hart’s passion is for the Border Ballads. Reluctantly she drives through deep midwinter snow to a conference in Kelso: en route she is overtaken by the motorbike of infuriatingly cocky Colin Syme, who mocks Prudencia’s reverence for archaic anachronisms: his interest is in contemporary “folk ballads’ such as football chants. The other participants in the debate are equally boringly self-obsessed: when Prudencia’s turn comes to speak she is unable to express her deep love of the truths she feels the ballads express.
The conference over, she is desperate to go home, but the snow is deep and the roads impassable: she is forced to accept Colin’s offer of finding and sharing a B&B. They go into a pub advertising a folk night which suddenly morphs into a Karaoke evening into which four ‘corbies’ erupt, raising their own brand of merry hell and driving Prudencia to escape. In a sudden power cut she stumbles out into the night: she hears singing and finds a woman dressed in white singing sadly of maiden love and betrayal. Midnight starts striking and the woman invites Prudencia to shelter with her, but Prudencia is determined to find her B&B. She is startled by the sudden appearance of a man who introduces himself as Nick, the proprietor of the B&B: she goes with him and is completely overwhelmed to discover his bungalow contains the largest and most comprehensive library of folk literature she has ever seen. Gradually it becomes clear that Nick is the devil and Prudencia is trapped in hell… will she stay forever, or will she find a way to escape?
This is not your conventional play, but a multi-faceted entertainment with full audience involvement in the action which takes place in and around it. We the audience provide the snow, from napkins we have been urged to tear into fragments while waiting for the show to begin. Prudencia’s car is ‘made’ by the other four actors: one audience member forms the handlebars of Colin’s motorbike and a young man becomes the focus of one of the ‘don’t remind me!’ moments from the corbies’ raucous re-enactment of one of their number’s drunken escapades. When Prudencia tries to escape from hell, a drunk Colin in his underpants reels out into the snow and becomes her shining knight: unfortunately this happened on my table above my head – all I could see was Colin’s [fortunately underpanted] bum and hairy legs… The rest of the audience found this hilarious, vociferously celebrated as “Colin Syme Held On” to Prudencia’s hand as she turned into eels, fire, and ice, and joyfully joined the chorus praising “only one Colin Syme”.
The awful rhyming couplets of the first half somehow enhanced the drama: the second half, mainly in prose, rather lost me in a fog of academic argument. The cast of five – Gwendolen Chatfield, George Drennan, Peter Hannah, Jessica Hardwick and Owen Whitelaw – are impressively multi-talented: there was good singing and interestingly crunchy harmonies, with some impressive trumpet playing. There were moments of great drama, especially when we were plunged into darkness. There were real moments of real pathos at the end – Nick finally confessing his love and then watching through the pub window with tears rolling down his face while Prudencia finally makes her heart-rending contribution to the karaoke evening – “Can’t get you out of my head” – which slowly morphed into a lively rabble-rousing performance to get the audience worked up into a veritable storm of applause and cheering. The production was full of energy, and though some of the cultural references were lost on me they were hugely entertaining to everyone else…
This is a play I have loved since its first appearance in the Fringe, when it became one of the season’s sell-out productions – I found this performance a little disappointing. Why wasn’t it the magic I remembered? Because I was sober? [The first performances were accompanied by free drams from a sponsoring distiller] Was it because my seat was at one end of the playing space: for the first half my view was obscured by someone’s towering hairdo while in the second half the action was largely at floor level in the centre of the hall. I couldn’t sense any real chemistry between the main characters, and Nick simply didn’t magnetise me despite being tall, dark, and sort of handsome… It’s a fabulous show which simply didn’t catch fire for me – but which everyone else thought was fantastic.
National Theatre of Scotland presents The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart David Greig, Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh until 19 May, then Mull, Oban & Charleston, South Carolina
Review by Mary Woodward