Mary Woodward Review

Rubble, Scottish Opera Young Company, Scottish Opera Studios Glasgow, Review:

***** (5 stars)

“A shatteringly powerful piece”

Rubble is not a comfortable piece to watch.  The physical and sexual abuse of children in care is not a comfortable subject.  How, then, can an opera be made about it?

Gareth Williams and Johnny McKnight have created something deeply disturbing, deeply moving, and deeply challenging.  As investigations continue to unearth shocking personal accounts of widespread abuse in Scottish children’s homes in the 1980s, we have to ask “how could this be going on, and we not know about it?”   In Rubble, Scottish Opera Young Company force us to face the reality of what was going on, and the damage done to the young people living in situations where the word “care” was a complete mockery.

Rubble is set in a fictional children’s home, Findenterran Farm, run by Mr. Anderson and Mrs. Pearson.  The young residents often arrived with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing, having no idea of why they were taken there.  Charlie recalls her arrival five years previously, and the welcome given her by Lee, a gentle boy who is loved by all the children, despite being prone to sudden violent outbursts. 

It is not until the arrival of Jude [to whom Charlie is instantly attracted] that anyone questions the fact that these outbursts result in Lee being taken by Mr Anderson to Room Number Nine “to calm him down” while everyone else gathers round the piano for lessons with Mrs Pearson.  She insists that learning to play the piano will ‘raise them to a higher plane’, and plays louder and louder to mask the noises coming from Room Number Nine.  Jude suspects that Lee is being abused: he recognises the symptoms from his own experience of his father’s abuse.  He tries to comfort Lee, but is unable to release the boy from the locked room. 

Charlie overhears Jude telling Lee his story.  A ‘games night’ invitation to all the other children gives Charlie the opportunity to ask whether any of them have experience of abuse from Mr. Anderson and, appallingly, about half of those present slowly raise their hands.  An escape is planned, and Jude steals Mr Anderson’s keys.   As Lee is being released Mrs Pearson appears and refuses to accept that Mr Anderson is guilty.  The noise wakes Mr Anderson, who denies everything.  Mrs Pearson asks Lee to tell her his story: when he finally divulges the truth, she is incandescent with rage, tells the children to escape and tell the police while she goes to the kitchen, turns on the gas, and lights a match…

This could have been a relentlessly grim tale with no redeeming features, but it wasn’t; though neither was it a barrel of laughs.  The Young Company played two groups of teenagers: the residents at Findenterran Farm and young people from today who narrated and commented on the action.  The latter also voiced Mr Anderson, meaning we never saw him – but we clearly saw his effect and at times felt his presence.  Lee was also voiced by the group, and at times was represented by a large teddy bear, but again was a real living presence.  Mrs Pearson was most definitely present, often with a large, heavy, wooden ruler in her hand, which she would frequently slap against the furniture [and doubtless on the children too].

The music was fascinating – much of it driving, insistent rhythms led by the piano, whose percussive voice was a constant reminder of the music lessons which were a central part of life at Findenterran Farm and underpinned the whole cover-up of years of abuse.  There were sections of glorious lyrical melody, generally setting the most appalling words, as when Jude was describing his own abuse to Lee and when Mrs. Pearson, at first a strict disciplinarian and fanatical piano teacher, reveals her secret drinking with which she smothers her internal disquiet.   The complex rhythms were fascinating – all credit to the cast for making them seem so easy!  I particularly appreciated the ‘piano lessons’ number with its incessant and hypnotic syncopated counting.

The singers were simply amazing – if this is the future of Scottish opera, it’s in excellent hands.  There were many soloists among the ensemble, some better able than others to make themselves heard over the small orchestra – having the audience both sides of the acting area would have made things tricky at times.  The ensemble singing was rich, powerful, and moving.  Shuna Scott Sendal’s Mrs Pearson was at times reminiscent of Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull, and at all times a force to be reckoned with.  Imogen Bews was an impressive Charlie, negotiating a complex role with aplomb, and Haydn Cullen was an outstanding Jude – hats off to him for his handling of his shockingly gentle and melodious account of his father’s abuse.

It was a great relief to learn that this young cast had therapeutic support while working on this challenging material.  As art therapist Ruth Switalski wrote in the programme, “considering the complex demands on performers to interpret and convey emotive content, while at the same time observing a protective preservation of self, the duty of care in the arts as distinct from other youth working is significant.  Engaging with a score as written content and notation and also experiencing its growth to becoming a powerful collective of voices is an emotionally rich journey.

A powerful collective of voices, indeed, speaking on behalf of those whose voices were not heard at the time, who were met with disbelief, who were left with feelings of shame and that the abuse was their fault.  A shatteringly powerful piece was brought to life by an extraordinary group of young people.  Conducted by Chris Gray and directed by Roxana Haines, herself care-experienced, the creative team were “determined to represent these care-experienced characters with respect, justice, and a fierce sense of hope”.  Indeed, Scottish Opera Young Company did just that.

Mary Woodward

Rubble, Scottish Opera Young Company, Scottish Opera Studios Glasgow, Run Ended.

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