There’s much to admire, to even love, in Douglas Maxwell’s new play at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum; a script full of humour and subtle characterisation, if not always clarity and sense, which director Matthew Lenton—Artistic Director of much-acclaimed Vanishing Point—has given a luminous staging, every character clearly delineated by casting and costume. Yet there are disappointments too: a script that’s too long, clunky in its metaphors, and guilty of “tell” rather than “show”.
Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s set, illuminated by Kai Fischer, is suitably abstract
“Can this be right?”, our grey-suited narrator (Robbie Gordon) asks, as the titular Charlie Sonata wanders on-stage to start things off. Our narrator gets the last word too, albeit apparently providing audio-description for the hard of understanding, rather than adding any dramatic impact to what could’ve been a heart-rending moment. It’s not much of a role, admittedly; Gordon wanders on and off stage, often with a disappointed look in his eyes as if everyone has failed to make the grade, while that rhythmically repeated question—“Can this be right?”—loses more meaning every time it’s asked.
While Lenton has gathered together an excellent ensemble cast, our eyes are necessarily drawn to lanky Sandy Grierson as our titular heroic drunk, Charlie Sonata—or “Chic” to his old university pals who, unlike him, have moved on from student days with careers and family. Seemingly always on the point of being about to lose his balance, or shit in his pants, Sonata’s the increasingly incoherent man you’d never want to speak to in a bar. Yet he’s fundamentally innocent in his outlook, at his happiest when dispensing shamanic advice about the best drinks to take for a perfect evening.
With one of his best mate’s daughter in a coma after a road accident, “Uncle” Sonata is on an odyssey to bring her back, assisted by Meredith, the “tad manic” sister of one of the doctor, who is desperate to force life’s troubles into the fairytale template of Sleeping Beauty. Charlie’s journey is somewhat fluid, slipping between past and present, between university days and life as an alcoholic in a London graveyard. Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s set, illuminated by Kai Fischer, is suitably abstract; filled with neon signs and a red telephone box pushed here and there across the stage.
We’re promised an “apotheosis”—an elevation to divine status—but, while we do get one, it’s less impactful than it could be. For, while we’re told that Sonata was once a man of real poetry and potential, we’re never shown this to be the case. Even in the 1990s, Sonata is always the passive one, nodding at his pals’ ideas but never having the impact he could. A bit like the play itself, in fact.