Monday, May 17, 2010

Pondlife McGurk, theatre review

Published in Northings

Church Hill Studio, Edinburgh, 13 May 2010, and touring

THE way this show by Edinburgh's Catherine Wheels is set out, you get a good chance to look at the audience. The younger members (it’s aimed at the 9–13 range) sit on four carpets divided by two corridors patrolled by actor Andy Manley. The less supple among us sit on benches on the perimeter of the playing area.

And should your attention slip from Manley at any point, you will see that everyone, young and old alike, has the look of a wide-eyed two-year-old. It is as if Manley is a shaman, enchanting his acolytes with magical words, beguiling them into a dream-like state. They stare at him with abandonment and absorption, trusting him, needing him to complete his tale. They are under his spell.

Yet the words he says, written by Rob Evans and co-created with Gill Robertson, are not so fantastical. Indeed, the scenario must be very familiar to this audience. It is about new-boy Martin who has arrived in a Scottish P6 from his old school in Birmingham. The other children have no time for him, unless it means calling him “Bummie”, and he'd be left on his own if it weren't for Simon, the one boy who shows him any attention. They become the closest of friends.

The tragedy comes not with a sudden blow, but in increments, as circumstances – in particular Martin's gift for football – tear them apart. The transition leads to a betrayal that haunts Martin for the next 30 years, much as any of us might be bugged by some rash act committed at an age when we were too young to understand our own behaviour, let alone control it.

In Manley's hands the tale is mesmerising. He is a calm and centred actor, a storyteller who draws us into his world not with grand gestures or extravagant characterisation, but with the sure and steady focus on what he has to say. Moving between and around us, he sketches the classmates, teachers and parents that populate the boys' world and, most movingly, captures the sense of helplessness as a perfect friendship goes perfectly wrong.

In lesser hands, Pondlife McGurk would be a crude morality play about bullying. Here it is a much more sophisticated consideration of the complex pressures of school, where alliances are made and broken at a price and only the most independently minded can resist the pull of the crowd. The company is touring to a Shetland school that was unable to make the journey to Edinburgh. Those children are getting a very good deal indeed.

Pondlife McGurk visits Shetland for two school performances and one public show at Bells Brae School, Lerwick, on 27 May 2010 (7pm).

© Mark Fisher, 2010

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