Studying playwriting and dramaturgy at Master’s level impacts on your appreciation of a play. The naïve pleasure of simply being entranced can be hard to recover, as the analytical cogs rarely stop whirring. You notice the costuming, make-up, props, stage management, lights & sound, direction, casting and the acting as separate elements of the production, as well as the publicity, front of house welcome and information – and the script.
So I was pleased to be totally enchanted, watching Govanhill Theatre Group’s Fairytaleheart, by all of these elements – apart from the latter which I only found charming. I shall return to this point. First of all the fit. It wouldn’t have surprised me to have found out that this was a site-specific devised performance, so snugly did the play fit the venue. When the teenaged characters, Kirsty and Gideon, comment on the cold, you could see their breath; and one of the very friendly and informative front of house staff told me there were so many resonances of this play, about a dilapidated and disused community centre, with the Govanhill Baths and the local community.
On this point, let me get my one criticism of the play (not of the production) out of the way. Having grown up on a social housing estate, or as we say in Scotland, a Council house scheme, with the unlovely generic designation of ‘Glasgow overspill’, I am very sensitive to caricature of working class communities. Especially by Guardian columnist lefty posterboys. So while I was charmed by the imaginative world that Gideon leads Kirsty to see in ‘starlight in streetlamps and jungles in cracks in the concrete’, rather than her own bleak vision of ‘a dump’, I am more interested in the community themselves which, in this play, rarely get a mention. Yes there’s Bingo and the loves past and present of the teens’ sole parent or guardian, but there’s no sense of the working class solidarity that I grew up with, the warm and generous hospitality, the houseproud poverty, the cheerful resilience and surrender to fate. It was only at university that I discovered a world where problems were not shared but hidden, where tea wasn’t automatically not so much offered as forced upon you as soon as you were ushered in the door, where there was an eccentric pride in accumulated dust over so many books and neglected objects on display, where simultaneous self-indulgent complaint and frenzied attempts to improve one’s lot were constant.
What Philip Ridley’s play does offer, and what director Eve Nicol brought out beautifully, is the awkward encounter of two teenagers in a space which they both have claim to yet neither of them can appropriate. I have seen Eve Nicol’s work before, both as director and playwright, and she deals with this theme of emotional marginality with an honesty that I find quite unnerving. I know these characters. My own adolescence was an alternation between them, never so extreme because I didn’t dare. Georgie Mac’s Gideon was attractive in his lithe energy and repulsive in his habits at the same time, as Catriona MacLeod’s Kirsty focused our eyes on him, with clever use of handheld torches, and the lovely glow of candles as the emotional temperature warmed up. Kirsty herself was always beautiful but, at first and often after, forbidding, the silver in her dress and sprinkled in her hair glittering and metallic.
Let me praise the play for not offering closure of the awkward gap between the teens. The last image, when all the candles and all the torches bar one have been extinguished, is a double profile where what is most apparent (because it’s what the actors and the director want us to see) is the negative space between them. It could just be a shadow but it could also be a candlestick – or even a heart.
The last performance in this run of Fairytaleheart starts at 7pm this evening, in the Steamie at Govanhill Baths, 99 Calder Street (just off Victoria Rd) G42 7RA. There may still be tickets on the door (£8/6) but you can book them at www.brownpapertickets.com and for further directions and info: www.govanhillbaths.com. Publicity image below by Sarah Gibboni.