Friday 7 January 2011

Review: Midsummer (a play with songs) (Tricycle Theatre)

David Greig and Gordon McIntyre’s play (with songs) Midsummer is now at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre, where it runs until 29th January. The production hardly needs more acclaim at this juncture, having been a huge success at the Edinburgh Festival in 2009, made its first London appearance at the Soho Theatre early last year, and toured internationally. But I wanted to briefly add my voice to the chorus of praise and to urge you to see the play if you possibly can. Set over a midsummer weekend in Edinburgh, the delightful two-hander focuses on the relationship between Bob (Matthew Pidgeon) and Helena (Cora Bissett), a couple of disappointed thirty-five-year-olds who meet in a bar, have a rather unsatisfactory one-night stand, go their separate ways (Helena to her sister’s wedding; Bob on an errand for one of his nefarious "employers") and then meet again. Periodically, the couple take up their guitars to sing their thoughts, feelings and desires.

In truth, there’s not a lot of variety to the songs, composed by McIntyre, which are mostly low-key acoustic strumming; they’re serviceable rather than spectacular. Still, they stop the play from becoming too frenetic. And there’s plenty of variety to the rest of Greig’s production, which creates its music through language and structure as much as the individual songs.  Fluidity is the key word here, both in terms of staging and performances. The play plays like a great pop album: instantly accessible but with unexpected depths; cohesive yet constantly surprising; infectious; exhilarating. Greig’s dialogue is full of refrains and riffs (on running, on agreeing, on being thirty-five), and the play skilfully moves between contrasting moods. The narrative mode is wonderfully elastic and inclusive: the play shifts between third- and first-person address (the protagonists spend as much time observing themselves as observing each other) and also incorporates flashbacks, Hollywood-movie parody, a conference involving audience participation, and the most charmingly blatant deus ex machina in recent memory. Greig also proves adept at balancing ribald comedy (a sex scene interrupted by a talking Elmo toy; Bob’s conversation with his penis), with touching moments of reflection, lyricism and melancholy, lovely undercurrents of wistfulness and rue.

Pidgeon and Bissett are beyond praise, capturing the vagaries of 30-something angst and ecstasy with aplomb, and seamlessly morphing into other characters when required. The production also conjures its various locations - flat and fetish club, plush hotel room, park and city street - with a minimum of fuss. (It's a love song to Edinburgh, too.) Infelicities are minor: Greig’s occasional over-reliance upon repetitious profanity to convey his characters' frustations sometimes makes the protagonists sound like they've stepped out of the opening sequence of Four Weddings and a Funeral, while a late scene between Bob and his son (played by Bissett, of course) didn’t quite work for me. Ultimately, though, it’s impossible not to be touched by the play’s portrait of two characters bumbling their way towards each other, or by its heartening insistence upon the possibility of change. Funny, intelligent and inventive, Midsummer is a perfectly delightful way to spend a midwinter evening or afternoon.

Further information at the Tricycle website.

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