Rowan Tree Theatre Company
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, and touring
The studio space in the Citizens Theatre proved the perfect meeting place for both an intimate chat and almost a plea with Midwives in the Cape and an early morning pep talk with the soldiers in Canada. The true story of James Miranda Barry, the first female doctor and indeed military surgeon who could only achieve her station by dressing up for most of her life as a man is told with phenomenal feeling and haunting contemporary facts.
The play is in two acts, in the first of which Barry is a woman, and in the second Barry is in his element as a man serving in the British army in Canada. The first act is noticeably longer than the second, and seems to reverse the fact that Barry spent the most part of her life as a man. This perhaps reflects that, despite being outwardly received as a man in society since the age of fourteen, Barry cannot escape from the biological fact that she is a woman and as a result is constantly struggling with her feminine frame and emotions.
The cast consists of only Isabella Jarrett who single-handedly wins the compassion of every audience member-cum-midwife as she entrusts us with her baby and her secret. In the second act, Barry amuses us, as army officers in Canada, with tales of his career and clashes with the establishment and the middle class snob Florence Nightingale. The passion of the performance combines with humour and a slight eccentricity leaving you ready to dash out the room, pistols at the ready after Barry as he leaves the stage in an early morning assault.
However, the performance does not only tug at your compassion, it also raises huge questions about the welfare and equipment provided for soldiers, not just during Barry's life time but also during our own. The play portrays Barry's advanced medical knowledge, demanding simple things such as clean wound dressings and facilities to clean hospitals and hands. His frustration at lack of equipment resonates with the pleas of several army officers and the all-party-defence committee among countless others regarding the equipment and preventative measures provided to the British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The intensity of the play is a direct result of the incredible acting and the intimacy of the space. Rather than watching the action from the back of an auditorium, every single audience member is right there on set, not just in the midst of the action but as a part of it, but then perhaps this is a treat to be expected of Rowan Tree as the company has built up a reputation for superbly crafted small scale productions which it describes as 'Chamber Theatre'.
The only drawback to practically sitting on stage - being baked blind by the strange choice of lighting used at the opening of the play.
The story of James Miranda Barry is truly intriguing and creates a beautiful performance which is thoroughly deserving of praise.
Playing until 26th January, then touring to: Yetholm, Wauchhope Hall (30 January); Eastgate Theatre, Peebles ( 31 January); Maltings Theatre, Berwick-upon-Tweed (1 February); Walkerburn Village Hall (2 February); Gattonside Village Hall (6 February); Denholm Village Hall (7 February); Lauder Scout Hall (February) and Ettrick Bridge, Kirkhope Hall (9 February)
Reviewer: Alison Burns