Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
4 out of 5
Was ever a penny dreadful as lurid as David Leddy's Sub Rosa? A site-specific journey into the bowels of a theatre built in 1878, it is as if a rococo Victorian melodrama has been laced with the ugly authenticity of the in-your-face playwrights of the 1990s. By offsetting a story laden with murder, sexual exploitation and back-street abortions with a romantic promenade through wardrobes and scenery stores, Leddy creates a show that is as ravishing as it is unpleasant.
The phrase "sub rosa" denotes secrecy, and applies to this series of interlinking monologues in two ways. First, in structure: the play leads small parties of theatregoers into the secret corners of the building, revealing the undecorated places where stage magic is created. Second, in content: it is about the tight-lipped tolerance of a company of 19th-century music hall entertainers for whom continued employment is worth any amount of ill treatment. There's an implicit understanding that anything these characters tell us, in tones varying from the hushed to the hysterical, is off the record.
Leddy's is not the first site-specific trip around the building once known as the Royal Princess's Theatre - 10 years ago Grid Iron attempted something similar in Monumental - but lengthy negotiations with the licensing authorities mean that Leddy can now take us to some extraordinary places. Even without the chilling power of the script, it would be worth taking the Sub Rosa tour just to see the tiny upper-circle bar that has been out of use for decades, the ancient trapdoor mechanisms and the remarkable chasm that allows a low-level view of the back of the stage.
Such spaces have weighty atmospheres of their own, which Leddy enhances with mood lighting, music and period props scattered along our route. In this way, the characters who emerge from the gloom - the wig-fitter, the novelty double-act, the strong man - are like theatrical ghosts trapped in the wings until summoned to tell their story.
That story starts off jauntily as we hear about the arrival of Flora McIvor, a 12- year-old runaway excited to be taking on the life of a variety performer, but grows increasingly dark as details emerge about the theatre manager's psychotic reign of terror. The gothic sensationalism is tempered by exquisite performances, notably by Alison Peebles, Finlay Welsh and Louise Ludgate, which add a human vulnerability to the Victorian excess.
© Mark Fisher