Beyond a sad wee half decorated tree that sits in the corner of the chaotic room where Robert Broom has lived for 12 years, there is ostensibly nothing seasonal about the latest play from Traverse Associate Artist Morna Pearson How to Disappear that takes the Traverse Christmas slot this year. Replacing the old message of ‘no room at the inn’ is the terrible indictment that there is ‘no room in society’ for the marginalised.
Robert (Owen Whitelaw) and his younger sister Isla (Kirsty Mackay) are two faitherless and mitherless bairns whose life ‘off the grid’ could be coming to an end following a visit from determined benefits assessor, Jessica (Sally Reid). Robert, brilliantly captured by Owen Whitelaw, has retreated to his room that he shares with a few tarantulas, a snake, an iguana and piles of copies of New Scientist. He hasn’t left for the house for 20 years, can’t even work a washing machine yet his strange behaviour masks an unusually high intelligence, acutely sharp instincts and a deep anatomical knowledge.
He has developed an allergy to light and life, has an acute sense of smell and is obsessed with the Aussie soap opera Neighbours, so much so that his limited life pivot round its episodes. Poor Isla struggles trying to keep up her judo lessons and homework in the midst of school bullying and looking after her anxious, skin picking brother.
So far so depressing. The re-creation of agoraphobic Robert’s claustrophobic living space by Becky Minto is vivid enough to make you glad you’re in the auditorium and not on set! But far from writing about the siblings’ bleak and fragile life of extreme marginalisation with a didactic tone, Morna Pearson has elevated the text by adding layers of the surreal and the mysterious in the form of time travel and parallel lives thanks to experiments with a car battery charger and a series of alarm clocks. Add to this her use native NE Scots laced with her trademark humour that drips with a rich humour that’s as black as treacle but not always as sweet. The result is an unsettling but compelling piece of theatre, under the sure hand of Gareth Nicholls’ direction, that had folk laughing throughout till its ending that unsentimentally holds the promise of other lives to be lived.
The themes of space and time are manifest in Kai Fischer’s lighting design that includes a group of what looks like hanging torches like the amber stars that inspire Robert to think far outside his own literal box i.e. his bedroom and Michael John McCarthy’s sudden whooshing sound effects are both atmospheric and dramatic. Time is confused within the scenes as well as in the overarching theme, shown by the whirring numbers of the digital clocks.
The late Jimmy Reid was recalled saying when looking at some high- rise flats that, "Behind every one of these windows is somebody who might be a horse-jumping champion, a formula one racing champion, a yachtsman of great degree, but he'll never know because he'll never step on a yacht or formula one car - he'll never get the chance." There’s a lot to process in this latest play from Morna Pearson. Some subtleties in the text are missed to the play’s detriment but once the confusion clears, a message of real relevance for our time shines through. Who among us would not want to step through the portal and see alternative possibilities; get that chance?
Friday 8 December-Saturday 23 December