Edinburgh’s revered Traverse Theatre has, for many years, defined itself as “Scotland’s new writing theatre”, regularly giving over its stages to a variety of new voices and performers –including the theatrical equivalent of a comedy club’s “open mic spot”. By financial necessity, this has contributed to a tradition of ‘rehearsed readings’, which have enabled new writers to get their work performed in public – albeit minus scenery, costumes and actors who have memorised their lines.
Yet a remarkable truth is that, with strong direction and skilled performers, ‘rehearsed readings’can be just as powerful a theatrical experience as a “fully staged”production.
Yet a remarkable truth is that, with strong direction and skilled performers, ‘rehearsed readings’can be just as powerful a theatrical experience as a “fully staged”production; indeed, they can be even more engaging, not least because the audience has to be altogether more committed to suspending their disbelief and using their imaginations to see past the casually-dressed actors wondering about a bare stage with just the script in their hands.
This strange truth has been proved beyond doubt by a week-long ‘residency’at the Traverse by the Leith-based Village Pub Theatre, a small group of Edinburgh-based writers, actors and directors who, some two years ago, set up regular rehearsed readings of new work in the function room of the Village Pub on South Fort Street. Settling into their new home in “Traverse Three”(otherwise known as the stage of Traverse One!), the team presented a succession of hour-long ‘plays-in-progress’covering a range of styles and issues, from romantic comedy to a serious examination of masculinity in the modern world.
Saturday evening’s grand finale, by contrast, was a “best of”selection from the 70-plus short plays presented in the Village Pub’s function room during the last two years, along with some of their innovative ‘Twitter plays’–yes, quick-fire dramatic pieces of no more than 140 characters. It’s fair to say that there was an end-of-term exuberance to proceedings in Traverse One, as co-founders James Ley (writer) and Caitlin Skinner (director) presented the eight short pieces and revelled in not being distracted by the slamming door of the ladies’toilet –one of the few apparent downsides to their regular home.
Given their tight character-count, most of the Twitter plays were essentially jokes, if only in their ‘twist in the tail’ structure, and Morna Pearson’s “Of The Green Kind” initially suggested that the longer pieces would follow a similar tone – with her humorous take on how an alien lurking in the woods effects three very different young women. But the mood changed almost immediately with Ellie Stewart’s “Scotneyland”, a take on the ‘Disneyfication’of Highland culture which, although expertly outlining its two characters and situation, felt too much like a section of something longer. Louise E Knowles' "The Beginning and the End", by contrast, was a compact expression of a long, loving relationship; touching without being overtly sentimental. Sylvia Dow’s “Larkin’About”, meantime, brought the first half to an enigmatic close.
At one point in the evening, Ley suggested that he’d been inspired to set up the Village Pub Theatre primarily as an excuse to get his own work performed; sneaking it in, like shit in a sandwich, between more wholesome layers. The lie to this was shown with his own short piece, “Alison and Paolo”, a tenderly presented hotel-room liaison between a young Spanish man and a widow in search of affection and her own identity while on holiday with her grown-up children. Poignant and beautifully subtle, it lingered in the memory and perhaps overshadowed much of what was to follow. Catherine Grosvenor’s “The Berwick Bunny”, for example, had its moments of humour and character, but with its tales within tales was hard to hold onto; Colin Bell’s “Bunny and Amora”, equally, failed to leave much of an impression. It took the increasingly gross concept lurking behind Sophie Good’s “Ham”to give an attentive audience the sucker-punch finale it needed.
Performed by seven excellent actors, with clearly strong and nuanced direction by Skinner and Caro Donald, it’s fair to say that the Village Pub Theatre have conclusively proved two things: that neither script-in-hand performance nor the one-act play are in any way inherently second-best; and, more importantly, that the Village Pub Theatre is clearly a new theatrical powerhouse that deserves far wider recognition.