IN THE standard Kafkaesque nightmare, the hero always finds himself trapped in a hell of red tape with no chance of escape. The difference here, in this sweet-natured puppet fantasy for the over-fives, is that fastidious Larry rather enjoys his dreary desk job.
Recalling one of Don Martin's long-faced cartoons from Mad magazine, this happy office worker taps away at his keyboard as he processes the steady flow of tickets that pop up in front of him. Such is his dedication to the task that his colleagues know to keep their distance. Larry's far too busy to break for coffee or lunch.
That's until his routine is broken. In a shocking and funny intrusion from the natural world, the next thing to pop through the slot in his desk (built from a suitcase like everything in this boxed-in world) is a bright green leaf. This call of the wild symbolises everything – beauty, freedom, imagination – that Larry has repressed. His neat-and-tidy absolutism has been challenged.
It's a fine starting point for puppeteer Ailie Cohen, performing alongside Rick Conte, to exploit the creative possibilities of her artform. Larry finds himself taken on a transformative journey from high seas to deep outer space, relinquishing control to the Quarks, a free-floating species of golden-brown suitcase dwellers, who have taken it upon themselves to bring balance to the lopsided universe.
If you find yourself with a lacklustre star, these are the creatures who will restore its sparkle. Where you encounter conflict, they will send a package of love and hugs. And for a man bereft of creativity, they will provide adventure.
Co-written by Lewis Hetherington and with autumn dates already lined up at London's Unicorn, The Secret Life of Suitcases is a quietly inventive tale of discovery in which the good guy confronts his fears and comes out even better.
Published in the Guardian Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh Two stars
WAS THERE a secret clause in the 1707 Act of Union? Did it state that every Scottish historical drama had to be set in a pub off Edinburgh's Royal Mile, populated by ne'er-do-wells, undercover nobles and a poet who would declaim Roman verse whenever the conversation flagged? Was there a further stipulation that no woman could appear unless she were a prostitute or a royal?
If so, then playwright Tim Barrow follows the decree to the letter. But it's not over-familiarity that lets Union down so much as its lack of narrative interest.
Given the urgency of the subject matter, this is odd. Six months before Scotland votes on independence, the play highlights the shaky foundation of the union. With Daniel Defoe acting as a go-between for the English establishment, it shows how Scotland's parliamentarians, financially crippled by the colonial misadventure of the Darien scheme, were bribed to vote in favour of a united kingdom.
Barrow establishes this early on and returns to it at the end. In between, there is little conflict and much extraneous material. You could imagine it adapting well to a House of Cards-style study of realpolitik as nobles are nobbled and favours called in. Instead, Barrow gets distracted by the inconsequential relationship between the poet Allan Ramsay and a prostitute, and by the ravings of a potty-mouthed Queen Anne. Perhaps we're supposed to see the prostitute's abortion as a symbol of Scotland's thwarted ambitions and the queen's miscarriages as a metaphor for England's emotional dead-end, but the ideas are not developed and the scenes hard to justify.
Mark Thomson's cast show flashes of inspiration, but tonally it's all over the place, swerving between serious costume drama and pantomimic satire. And although the fate of two nations is in the balance, it's surprisingly easy to forget what's at stake.
Published in the Guardian Birds of Paradise/Random Accomplice on tour Four stars
JAKE thinks he's in with a chance. After a volley of sexting with an attractive stranger called Laura, he has taken up the invitation for a one-night stand at her Cumbernauld flat. Despite finding her already in bed, bosom heaving and ready for action, he gets less than he bargained for. And when he strips down to his Diesel underpants, so does she.
It's tempting to say that Johnny McKnight's play for Birds of Paradise and Random Accomplice is about the tyranny of body image, the urge for sex, the need for love, and the gulf between erotic fantasy and flesh-and-blood reality. But that would give the wrong impression. Although it is about all of those things, what strikes you most forcibly is how outrageously funny it is.
Big laughs hit you from every direction: from the British sign language interpreter who takes a break to eat a Cadbury Creme Egg at the same time as the actors; from the captions which come complete with cheery emoticons, high-street logos and vulgar graphics; from the audio describer, a privately educated prude who keeps up a withering commentary far beyond the requirements of her job; and, above all, from a cocky yet vulnerable James Young and a defiantly sexy Amy Conachan, who hit joke upon joke as the mismatched couple in this scabrous comedy of manners.
Below the surface, McKnight's play is as liberal and romantic as they come. Through a series of twists that confound expectations, it makes a plea to look beyond physical appearances and job titles to see people as they truly are. At surface level, however, the production, co-directed by McKnight and Robert Softley Gale, has no time for such soppiness; it is rude, ribald and hilariously off-colour, and bodes tremendously well for the new directorship of Birds of Paradise.
Published in the Guardian Stellar Quines on tour Three stars
I BET Christine Lindsay's early-morning dreams are like Dare to Care. If, like her, you had joined the Scottish Prison Service as long ago as 1976, you, too, would have your head filled with the dissonant voices of prisoners and warders. Her play is like a behind-bars Under Milk Wood, a theatrical poem made up of conversational fragments from women who are variously abused, suicidal, deranged and unrepentant. Their voices, which echo along institutional corridors never to be heard beyond the prison walls, are all they have to call their own.
Lindsay's language has an unsentimental authenticity and her characters ask for no special favours; we must take them as we find them. Most commonly, they come across as victims of circumstance, whether it's the fire-raising suffragette we see in flashback or the self-harmer in segregation who was raped by her father. If such characters appeal to our liberal sympathies, it's harder to feel sorry for the loan shark gleefully awaiting release and a return to profit, even if she is one more product of a dysfunctional society.
On the downside, Dare to Care hits one note and sticks to it. There is no plot or character development, and its vision, however brutal and true, is a familiar one.
On the plus side – and it's a very big plus – is Muriel Romanes's production for Stellar Quines. On an open set with microphone and monitors, vaguely reminiscent of the Wooster Group, she choreographs her excellent six-strong cast through an inventive pattern of solos and ensemble pieces. They are isolated beneath Jeanine Davies's high-contrast lighting, its enveloping gloom suggesting no life beyond their closed world, yet when they come together in a series of raps and chants, they drum up a mood of defiant solidarity that does indeed dare you to care.
Published in the Guardian Tron Theatre Three stars
THE LAST time we saw Elaine C Smith, she was sending up Rod Stewart, Gladys Knight and Adele as a Fairy Godmother in the Aberdeen panto. David Greig, meanwhile, has been pulling in the crowds to his adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the West End.
Fans of Cinderella and Roald Dahl are unlikely to be prepared for This Wide Night, a grim slice-of-life two-hander, directed by Greig, in which Smith plays an ex-con. Escapist holiday entertainment it is not.
First staged by Clean Break at London's Soho theatre in 2008, Chloe Moss's kitchen-sink drama is an unsentimental study of two women trying to find a place in the world after they've emerged from the prison system. One, played by Jayd Johnson, is a former drug addict, prone to shoplifting and coerced into prostitution. The other, her old cellmate played by Smith, was inside for murder and, at the age of 50, forlornly dreams of rebuilding her family and getting a job.
When Greig saw a production in New York, he was taken by Moss's portrayal of people who society "too often finds expendable". Although they have paid their dues, you'd hardly call them rehabilitated. They are not defined by their crimes, but neither can they escape them. What sets them apart is their isolation.
For all that, the production shows us too much of their vulnerability and too little of their capacity to survive. The early part, especially, is tentative and in need of some brash theatrical energy to disrupt the quiet, conversational realism. Only as the play goes on, and we realise that their greatest dependency is not on drugs or alcohol but on each other, does their odd couple relationship begin to find its emotional force.