It is a tad ironic that, initially, the most overpowering element in this new show from Stellar Quines Theatre Company – established in 1993 to “celebrates the energy, experience and perspective of women” – is the work of the lone male listed in the show’s creative team. It’s the set; a beautifully decrepit cottage interior, filled with detail and a touch of wistful fairytale – Grimm, not Disney – surrounded by skeletal trees rising out of a water-like blackness. It speaks fluently of both past and present, of the relentlessness of nature and the obstinate lingering of humanity – and so, arguably, perfectly encapsulates the heart and soul of Rebecca Sharp’s poetic script. Admittedly, this shouldn’t come as a surprise; you don’t get second best when you employ the acclaimed artist and writer John Byrne.
Engrossing and beautiful though this Stellar Quines production is, that’s not always enough to hold even the most vigilant audience’s attention for long.
Even the best set in the world can be ruined by poor lighting, though; thankfully, Byrne and director Muriel Romanes are well-served by Byrne’s partner Jeanine (neé Davies). Different areas of the house come into focus as and when required, while the simplest effect suggests the turning path of a car’s headlights. Appropriately, too, the walls are on occasions illuminated with a succession of symbols – from the assured reliability of an Ordnance Survey map to the more runes of ancient civilisations; layers of reality revealed and subsequently hidden in symbols.
Sharp’s play focuses on three women: the first to speak is Isobel, played with emotional clarity by Melody Grove. Isobel has been left the “awkward” to reach Argyle home of her childhood friend Yvonne; her annoyance at this for the most part masking her own grief at the apparent inevitability of Yvonne choosing to end her own life one Halloween evening.
Pauline Lockhart as Yvonne retains a certain ethereal quality throughout, which is balanced by Stellar Quines stalwart Alexandra Mathie who brings a warmth to the third woman in the house, its former owner Marion Campbell. She wrote of the spirit world and ancient civilisations in both fact and fiction; and, it’s suggested, became a spiritual guide of sorts for Yvonne in her final days.
What is not initially clear from Rebecca Sharp’s script is that Campbell was a real person, who died at the age of 80 in June 2000; the only obvious clue, for those unfamiliar with her work as an author and archaeologist, is a picture projected on the rear wall. Building a fictional world from her life and work is appropriate, given her own work, but not making her historic existence explicit is arguably a weakness none-the-less. Another is a lack of dramatic impact; for most of the time, the three women on stage address the audience rather than each other and, if this is thought of as a ghost story, it’s one without scares or even overt consequences. Engrossing and beautiful though this Stellar Quines production is, that’s not always enough to hold even the most vigilant audience’s attention for long.