Review: Midsummer (a play with songs) by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre -Traverse Theatre (Edinburgh) & La Boite Theatre Company at The Roundhouse

This, for me, was pretty much a perfect evening in the theatre. Silly and sad, lyrical and earthy, and always tender at heart, this marvellous two-hander from Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, currently on tour around Australia, is a sheer delight. Judging by the ovation at play’s end and broad smiles, the others at the sold-out opening night performance felt the same. Just a tip at the top of this review – get your ticket now.

Traverse Theatre, founded in 1963, is Scotland’s leading ‘new writing’ company. This work from 2008 was created and workshop-honed by both actors (Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon) and writer-director David Greig and songwriter Gordon McIntyre. The play kicks off with the meeting of Helena and Bob, two mismatched 35-year olds who meet in a bar at the start of the Midsummer long-weekend. It’s an unlikely coupling as both are all too aware. However, it’s Midsummer and anything can happen; we know that, don’t we theatre-lovers? As writer David Greig puts it, it’s a ‘love-story told from two perspectives – the man and the woman.’ It’s also a love poem to the great, grey city of Edinburgh where (as I recall) the beer is dark and the men pasty – the latter from the lack of sunshine.

I can’t recall a play that is as deliberately grounded in the geography and feel of place as is Midsummer… .  Indeed, a handy map in the front of the programme (which, sweetly, includes Traverse Theatre’s location itself) tracks protagonists’ Helena and Bob’s journey over one MAAAD!, debauched, hilarious Midsummer long-weekend. It’s a magic time for those in the far north where the hours of night float upon those of day  … . I can’t recall the exact phrase, but there are glorious moments of lyricism like this in the play’s dialogue as well as gritty Scots’ vernacular. Midsummer … is a play with music – not a musical – and its simplicity and urban-folk sound sung and accompanied by the actors is just … right. Is there a more romantic-sounding instrument than the acoustic guitar or a more endearing than a ukelele? I think not. We get both. By the way, if you like hearing authentic dialects in plays (as I do) then you are going to love this one.

The Roundhouse can accommodate 400, which is close to the Traverse’s own intimate 300-seater home room. This kind of space – here configured to a three-sided ‘thrust’ staging – allows the audience to get up close. It’s ideal for a play about intimacy.

The set by designer Georgia McGuinness is a marvel of simplicity without ever screaming ‘We’re on tour,’ and it fits beautifully into the big room at La Boite. The focus in an all-purpose room space is a large bed, itself a clever bit of stage machinery that provides most of the space for the action, hiding and revealing props in turn.

Ms Bissett and Mr Pidgeon, who have been with the show from the get-go, are a joy to watch across the couple of hours that track Helena and Bob’s crazed weekend. Midsummer … is an actor-focussed work and it makes big calls on its actors by foregrounding role-playing and story-telling. Both are simply terrific. You might think playing over such a long time would leave stale marks but there isn’t a hint of slick. They play with each other and the audience in what is a finely-honed duet – their cheekiness charming and drollery a pure delight. Mr Greig steers his team and Midsummer‘s tempo-rhythms with a fine hand.

Midsummer first appeared in a ‘low-budget production’ at the end of 2008 and went on to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2009. It’s been a huge success along the way – first in its hometown, and then in London, Canada, the USA and now Australia. The presentation gives production credits to La Boite, Merrigong Theatre Company (Wollongong) and Richard Jordan Productions.  Midsummer … ‘s genesis from low-budget indie to international success is heartwarming, to say the least. It’s the kind of co-production model to watch and emulate.

Midsummer is one to catch and treasure. Truly …

 

Images: Lisa Tomasetti