Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

David Grieg, co-created with Wils Wilson
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre

Oliver Wellington, Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings & Joanne Thomson (Prudencia) Credit: Johan Persson
Oliver Wellington, Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings, Amelia Isaac Jones, centre: Paul Tinto (Devil) Credit: Johan Persson
Joanne Thomson (Prudencia) & Oliver Wellington (Colin) Credit: Johan Persson
Joanne Thomson (Prudencia) & Paul Tinto (Devil) Credit: Johan Persson
Paul Tinto (Devil & ensemble) plus cast Credit: Johan Persson
Malin Lewis (MD & ensemble), Joanne Thomson (Prudencia) Credit: Johan Persson

Rather than the big musicals of the last few Christmases (apart from last year, of course)—Gypsy, The Producers, Guys and Dolls, Sweet Charity etc—this year, the Royal Exchange has opted for something a little more off-the-wall with Scottish playwright David Greig's demonic fantasy. The play is set partly in a bar and was originally performed in pubs and clubs; putting it on the main stage here decouples it from its site-specificness and focusses on it as a standalone play.

The titular Prudencia (Joanne Thomson) is an academic who collects folk songs and loves their history, stories and the feelings they embody. She finds herself reluctantly addressing an academic conference in Kelso where her colleagues see them as objects to be deconstructed dispassionately—one (Amelia Isaac Jones) is a 'post-post-structuralist' who finishes her talk with a flourish on the word "vagina"; Colin Syme (Oliver Wellington) thinks 'folk' is now X Factor and pop culture and that the folk music tradition is irrelevant—and find her love of them quaintly old-fashioned.

Snowed in for the night, Prudencia and Colin find themselves in a lock-in in a local pub, where the 'folk night' advertised proves disappointing and a raucous hen party begins to intimidate our heroine during the karaoke. Out on the street in the snow, she comes across a man claiming to be the proprietor of a B&B but he turns out to be the Devil (Paul Tinto, who intriguingly has a bit of a look of the playwright), although his version of Hell—nothing like how she envisioned it even though her specialism is "the topography of Hell"—has a library an academic could enjoy spending eternity in. But after spending thousands of years cataloguing his collection, can she escape back into the real world, and has the Devil fallen for her? Or was it all a dream?

Drifting between a satire on academia and broad, drunken comedy, Debbie Hannan's production comes across like a version of John Godber's Bouncers rewritten by David Lodge. The hard-working ensemble of actor musicians (Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings and Malin Lewis plus those previously mentioned) are pushed into over-visualising a lot of their narration, sometimes to the point of childishness, and the hen party scene comes across like a panto routine that would be twice as effective if it was half as long.

However, there are also moments of more subtle humour and of some profound thoughts about the nature of popular culture, suggesting that both Prudencia and Colin are right up to a point (perhaps not the post-post-structuralist) but that things are more complicated than either of their academic work so far would suggest. The first act is all written in rhyming verse, and getting back from prose to verse becomes symbolic of Prudencia breaking away from the Devil and tuning back into the 'real' world—the opposite of what one might expect.

All of this is accompanied by live music from Malin Lewis, who doesn't seem too confident with a small number of spoken lines, but the music is wonderful and adds a lot to the production's atmosphere.

There are some very interesting ideas—relating to the subject, the dramaturgy of the script and the staging—that grabbed my attention, but this production for me was sometimes intriguing and enjoyable and sometimes irritating, so a bit of a curate's egg overall.

Reviewer: David Chadderton