Iain Finlay Macleod
First produced by the National Theatre of Scotland at the Traverse in 2011 and now getting its London première, Somersaults centres on Scots-born James (David Carlyle) who has a Eureka! Moment whilst playing a computer game. He realises the posters in its landscapes are an advertising opportunity.
Having made a killing selling them, he is now set up in a posh Hampstead residence with a glamorous trophy wife Alison (Emily Bowker). It is a long way from his Gaelic speaking boyhood on the Isle of Lewis where he grew up as Seumas.
He delights in showing everything off to former Cambridge mate Mark (Simon Harrison) he has re-encountered, who remembers Alison as a girl everyone was after. The Gaelic is now an obsessional joke, remembered for those phrases that sound like obscene English. James is in the middle of a well-oiled demonstration when he has another defining moment though he may not be aware of it.
Returning from the kitchen with a new bottle of wine, he almost catches Mark making a pass at his wife, then trips and somersaults. The action freezes and an enigmatic figure enters, apparently appraising all his possessions. Back into real time, James finds him racking his brains to remember what "somersault" is in Gaelic.
That somersault neatly and dramatically represents the turmoil of the banking crisis that turns James’s world upside down. Now that enigmatic man is back as the liquidator, dismantling James’s entire estate after his bankruptcy. Between the brief scenes which follow, possessions disappear from the shelves of James’s Hampstead home. His wife too has gone, glimpsed briefly through an opened cupboard door in the midst of sex with Mark.
Richard Teverson makes the liquidator Bennett a cold button-moulder like figure. He says he has been through all this himself but he seems more like some judgemental recording angel. “We will leave you the essentials of life” he promises, and at some times this seems to be a play questioning what are those essentials. More importantly it questions what makes us what we are, what happens if we lose our past, our culture and our language.
James goes back to Lewis to visit his father Sandy, facing death from terminal cancer, a beautiful understated performance from Tom Marshall, the most real of all the characters in this play. Their dialogue is mainly in Gaelic, so those who understand it will gain more information—like Sandy getting rid of his sheep because they were too much work—but the play’s message is for those who speak a dominant language (especially the English).
The play’s construction means that some scenes become fully comprehensible only after they have happened and we learn only the minimum necessary about its characters, but Russell Bolam’s production makes it a stylish 80 minutes. Not just Philip Linley’s design and the scene changes, punctuated by lighting designer Elliot Grigg’s flickering effects and Max Pappenheim’s sound score, but its clever physicality. For instance, a striking sequence when James and Mark try to recapture their student rapture in a drinking game dancing to “Roxanne” by the Police.
It is a scene that suggests the superficiality of their lives as does James’s acquisition of art objects without any appreciation of their cultural value, but it also helps the transition into the sheer theatricality of the production which is not afraid to spell things out and confront the audience. “The object has gone. The signifier signified is dust. The word has gone,” declares Barrett, and finally, as the shelves are refilled with words, the audience is asked how it would feel if your language was dying.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton