Riotous, hilarious, alternately bonkers and clever The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart written by David Greig and co-created with Wils Wilson, has it all: folk music, especially ballads, crazy physical theatre, audience participation (not too worrying), and a ghostly (devilish) frisson. It is a great yarn, in the tradition of Scottish play and story-telling reminiscent of Burns’ Tam Lin, at a cracking pace and it too, amazingly, rhymes throughout.
A revival of a National Theatre of Scotland commission in 2011, now refined and revamped, this show is a Royal Lyceum Edinburgh and Double M Arts co-production. Originally designed to take place in pubs, it retains this feel even in the 18th century grandeur of the Playfair Library which turns out to be a surprisingly fit setting in the second act. The audience sit at tables with the cast rushing about between them. (Brilliant movement directed by Janice Parker.) A warning, sit at the edge if you don’t like audience participation.
Prudencia Hart, a strong performance by Charlene Boyd, is an uptight collector of folklore and especially ballads, dressed like a prim librarian on her way to Kelso, a remote town in the Scottish Borders to attend a conference to read her PhD on ‘The Typography of Hell’. Taunted by her rival Colin Syme (a multi-talented Ewan Black), who is so full of himself ‘he’d eat himself if he was a biscuit’, sidelined by the other snooty structuralist academics, she wants to return home but she is trapped by snow. (Much audience participation.) And so begins her undoing. Forced to go to a riotous folk session in a pub, where she is bullied to sing, she flees out into the snow. A sudden silence and the world turns eerie. As she searches for a B and B, the owner, whose eyes have a fiendish fire, comes to greet her. It is the midwinter solstice and midnight, a time when the gates of Hell open in an Asda car park (nice touch that) and it is, of course, the Devil, an impressive performance by Gavin Jon Wright.
The rambunctious exuberance of the first act with musicians dressed in cowboy style like so many folk bands, comes to a memorable end with a soulful rendition of Bert Jansch’s Black Waterside sung movingly by Natali McCleary in Gaelic style, much decoration, half notes and slides, sending shivers down your back. This mood continues in the second act where the Devil keeps Prudencia in his library, which delights her since there’s every book about folklore in the world, and the Playfair comes into its own.
How Prudencia becomes totally undone, falling for the Devil and how the Devil himself is undone ensues and there are interesting musings about the nature of love and poetry and how rhyme can undo you. Prudencia’s cold exterior in the first act melts and Charlene Boyd’s emotional transformation is beautifully acted, unravelling like her hair. Later she reveals what a beautiful singing voice she has. Gavin Jon Wright performs with multi-faceted subtlety so one begins to feel sorry for the Devil.
Talking of which, look out for amusing rhymes such as ‘yobbish/snobbish’; ‘a fatal wooing that was her undoing’ and towards the end the only one rude one ‘verse/erse’. This light touch prevents the rhyme becoming too heavy-handed and is an impressive achievement. The addition of Tartan Army football chants, Wembley 1970, (audience participation) is a comic masterpiece, especially when Colin Symes (Ewan Black) becomes a karaoke hero, a cross between Tom Jones and Tam Lin.
An uplifting show, whose mood will stay with you. But as you exit, don’t forget to study the portraits lining the walls above the grand staircase.