Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Theatre review: The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

One thing that looks likely to become a feature of Vicky Featherstone's tenure at the Royal Court is co-productions with her former company, the National Theatre of Scotland. So it is with the final show in the Open Court "taster" season, which falls under the Theatre Local umbrella, taking it to the London Welsh Centre near King's Cross. Which is a pretty strange choice of location for a show as resolutely Scottish as The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, the brainchild of its writer David Greig and director Wils Wilson. The prevalence of Welsh dragons in the decor aside though, this proves an apt enough space for the piece, the long bar set up for a lock-in as if in the Kelso pub where a couple of crucial scenes take place. The story is told by five actor-musicians, and is a tribute to the traditional Border Ballads - as well as a deconstruction of them.

Prudencia Hart (Melody Grove) is a rather dry academic who specialises in this particular type of folk song, with an interest in the way they build a picture of Hell. After attending a conference where she's viewed as desperately old-fashioned in her approach to the text, especially compared to her laddish colleague and rival Colin (Paul McCole,) she ends up stranded in Kelso by the particularly bad winter of 2010.

She and Colin take shelter in a particularly rowdy pub where he seems to fit in but she's terrified. Her trip out to find a Bed and Breakfast sees her living out a Border Ballad of her very own, as the B&B owner she meets is Nick (David McKay,) the devil himself, out to trick her like the heroine of many a folk song. With the audience sitting at pub tables, the show sees the cast running around the space and making use of it to tell their frantic, very funny story filled with music and good-natured audience interaction - don't worry, the mention of karaoke in the publicity does not mean you'll be required to sing, that's left to the cast. But the audience are asked to contribute to the snowstorm that strands Prudencia with the help of some shredded napkins, and Vanessa was conscripted to be part of Colin's motorbike (the cast presumably having taken one look at her and thought "bike.")

This is a raucous, wild and entertaining show but it also features a rather extraordinary quiet, intense central section in which Prudencia spends several thousand years trapped in the B&B of Hell that Nick has tricked her into and, like in the ballads she studies, she and the Devil fall in love. Greig uses his heroine's knowledge of the genre to deconstruct both the story she's in and his own writing, which has been in rhyming couplets until this point but now breaks into harsh prose. It avoids becoming self-indulgent both by how cleverly it's done and by how movingly Grove, McKay and McCole (who occasionally takes on the role of Nick to suggest the Devil is taking on different forms over the millennia - complete with cloven socks) alternate between quite scary aggression (at times this loud and silly show manages a genuinely chilling spookiness) and buried passion, the story in many ways being of how Prudencia burying herself in ancient books is an expression of her sexuality, not a repression of it.

But the show's surprising depths don't overtake its sense of fun which is soon back to end the evening on a high note that includes the flinging of jellied eels (wearing your best clothes is not advised) and crisps, and McCole goes over and above the call of duty to suffer some indignities involving ice cubes. Even in a hot summer that's rendered the room far from the severe winter it portrays, that can't have been much fun. With a game-for-anything cast providing music and endless energy, and a script that clearly cares about the Border Ballads but also succeeds in making them accessible and entertaining, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is theatre firing on all cylinders and on multiple levels. There's even free Scotch samples for the raging alcoholics and free interval sandwiches for the fat people - so that's both Vanessa and me catered for. It's just a shame that it's been given an 8pm start time that leaves the audience stranded in the wilds of Kings Cross at nearly 11.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart by David Greig and Wils Wilson is booking until the 3rd of August at the London Welsh Centre, Kings Cross, (returns only) and from the 5th to the 9th of August at the Bussey Building, Peckham (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.


  1. Glad you enjoyed it! What a winner, eh?

    1. Thanks for the recommendation on where to sit, although you probably meant the seats by the windows facing the bar, we ended up right in the middle at the tables, hence Vanessa getting her bike on. Although, great spot to watch the "Hell" scenes from!