Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Theatre review: Somersaults

Russell Bolam directed my top show of 2012, and he kicks off 2013 with an English premiere, Iain Finlay Mcleod's Somersaults. The main show at the Finborough, it shares with the venue's current alternate show a Scottish lead character with Scots Gaelic as his first language, but is a very different, and in many ways even odder, creature. When he first reconnects with old university friend Mark (Simon Harrison) via Facebook, James (David Carlyle) seems to have it all: Thanks to a canny discovery and good investments, he's got a lot of cash and free time, which he's used to fill the Hampstead flat he and wife Alison (Emily Bowker) share with lots of desirable stuff. But his finances aren't what he thought they were, and soon an unusually posh bailiff, Barrett (Richard Teverson) turns up and his belongings and home are gone, with Alison not far behind.

Meanwhile there's an even more painful loss imminent back on the Isle of Lewis where James grew up, and where his father Sandy (Tom Marshall) has terminal cancer. All of James' losses become wrapped up in his mind with a less tangible one: Beginning with the word for "somersault" he starts to forget the Gaelic that was his first language, and which he continues to speak with his father.

Originally commissioned by Vicky Featherstone when she ran the National Theatre of Scotland, I was tempted to see if Somersaults might give a hint to the kind of thing she'll be commissioning when she takes over at the Royal Court, but unless "oddities" turns out to cover it I'm not sure how many clues we can infer from it. Bolam has in the past shown a sure touch with pieces that require a somewhat heightened reality, but here he's been less able to reconcile the different styles Macleod throws at him. The very short scenes that open the play mean it takes a while to get into, and even as we seem to get to grips with the play we get new stylistic jumps. Following Sandy's death it suddenly becomes apparent - with Barrett's general oddness the only earlier clue - that the version of events we're seeing is heavily influenced by James' mental state.

There's an interesting point being made about the extent to which the language we speak, and the language we think in, defines our identity, but it's further muddied by a coda in which the actors come out of character to deliver a (somehow patronising) plea to the audience not to let Gaelic disappear. I left feeling unsure what, ultimately, Somersaults was - a language's death as metaphor for a man's mental breakdown, or a man's mental breakdown as metaphor for the death of a language?

I don't think it's the variety of styles I minded so much as the fact that they're not allowed to flow in a way that feels natural, as if the playwright wanted to experiment with form but didn't quite find a way to make it all hang together as a single piece of theatre. But if the play itself disappoints at least it's given a production that finds its strengths and plays them to the hilt. An unknown-to-me cast are impressive and likeable and the comic sections work well, even if they lurch strangely in style just as much as everything else does (the frantic drunken dance to the Spice Girls felt very oddly out of place with everything around it.) Marshall makes the stoical Sandy a particularly lovable figure, his dialogue's tendency towards stream of consciousness and non sequiturs probably more a sign of eccentricity than the effects of his illness. And Harrison's pectorals attempting to escape from various too-tight costumes are a distraction in their own way.

Philip Lindley's set also provides an atmospheric contribution, made up of many shelves whose contents gradually disappear as, on one side, James' belongings are repossessed and, on the other, Sandy gets rid of his as he prepares for the end. There's a lot of beautifully-done elements to Somersaults but it somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Somersaults by Iain Finlay Macleod is booking until the 26th of January at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes straight through.

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