Mary Woodward at the Festivals

With the devil’s assistance, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Venue 30, Review:

**** (4 stars)

Shona Cowie is a brilliant storyteller

We are in a conference room, being invited to take part in a seminar on “Your High Street”.  We are shown pictures of empty shops and streets devoid of people and are asked for our comments.  Our case study, Ayr, is the archetypal once-thriving, now deserted town: but, back in the day, it was bustling and prosperous, and the most bustling and prosperous property owner there was Maggie Osborne, who owned the grandest house on the High Street.

We see the impressive, three-story house, in a prime position, built in the golden age of Ayr’s prosperity, when Glasgow merchants made their fortunes from sugar, cotton and tobacco.  The house has three floors with beds to rent at prices to suit all purses; and a bar and kitchen on the ground floor.  It is ideally situated to serve both the people of Ayr who shop in its market place and the sailors who arrive from overseas.  It is owned by Maggie, a successful – and unmarried –woman: there are those who say the house was built in the darkness of one night, after Maggie made a pact with the devil.

We meet Maggie’s ‘lassie’ as she labours in the kitchen.  When she goes out to get the messages for her mistress the inhabitants of Ayr come to life in front of our eyes as we follow her through the market place and up through the town to the Tolbooth.  A storm is brewing, and the gossip is stewing and coming to the boil in the market place, with talk of dark magic and a terrible disaster.  It’s a vile night, so everyone takes refuge in the bar of Maggie’s property, where the drink flows and the tongues wag, the tales get wilder and the accusations of witchcraft start to fly, until it gets out of hand…

Shona Cowie is a brilliant storyteller. We don’t just observe her characters – we are there, right next to them; we know them and drink in their every word, feeling the darkness and tension grow, listening in horror as the tale winds to its gruesome conclusion.  Shona is ably assisted by the multi-talented Neil Sutcliffe who plays any number of instruments and provides background noises, mood music, jingles, song and sympathetic support when the story gets too gruesome for comfort.

The stage effects and lighting are very evocative, Shona’s dancing is impressive, and her warm invitations to us to participate simply can’t be resisted.  It’s a very entertaining show with a more serious purpose behind it – we are asked to think of all the women in Scotland who were wrongly accused of witchcraft simply because they were single, strong, successful, and/ or powerful.  We might draw parallels with today, when strong women are vilified while strong men are applauded…

We could also think about our deserted town centres and consider what we might do to restore the life of local communities – particularly apposite in my case as I have recently learned that the fruit and veg shop which is an essential and central part of my own high street will close shortly because the council’s rates are impossibly high…

And the storytelling will linger long: it’s brilliant.

With the devil’s assistance, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Venue 30, for tickets go to: With The Devil’s Assistance | Theatre | Edinburgh Festival Fringe (edfringe.com)

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