The spir­its are with us in fine Gothic form

Sunday Herald Life - - Theatre & Opera Reviews - For tour dates for Vel­vet Evening Seance, visit: ab­erdeen­per­formin­ vel­veteveningseance Re­viewed by Mark Brown

Vel­vet Evening Seance Seen at The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, tour­ing un­til March 4 The Belle’s Strat­a­gem, Royal Lyceum, Ed­in­burgh un­til March 10

AS Scot­land’s third city, Aberdeen has long punched be­low its weight for theatre. In par­tic­u­lar, the Gran­ite City has no pro­duc­ing house (such as Dundee Rep, for ex­am­ple) that stages its own work on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

In this con­text new com­pany Freshly Squeezed Pro­duc­tions (FSP), pro­duc­ers of Suzie Miller’s Vel­vet Evening Seance, is a good deed in a naughty world. Es­tab­lished by Aberdeen Per­form­ing Arts, with sup­port from Creative Scot­land’s Pro­duc­ers’ Project, FSP’s im­pres­sive of­fer­ing is, one hopes, a sign of things to come.

Di­rected by Ross MacKay and per­formed by Scott Gil­mour, this mon­odrama taps neatly into, not one, but two in­her­ently the­atri­cal so­cial phe­nom­ena (le­gal tri­als and seances). Set in Lon­don in 1901, the piece takes place in a court­room, where James MacGre­gor, a young Scot who claims to be a spir­i­tu­al­ist, is fight­ing for his life.

Ac­cused of the fa­tal poi­son­ing of his older brother, MacGre­gor seeks to per­suade the jury of 12 men (in whose stead we, the au­di­ence, sit) of his in­no­cence by means of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and, ul­ti­mately, a seance. The play asks more of its per­former than many sin­gle-ac­tor dra­mas, and Gil­mour rises to the chal­lenge, tak­ing on the roles of nu­mer­ous char­ac­ters (all of whom are now dead) with a com­pelling dex­ter­ity.

The con­tin­u­ously played live mu­sic by com­poser/ pian­ist Jim Har­bourne and de­cep­tively sim­ple set by de­signer Becky Minto (which is more hang­man’s scaf­fold than Vic­to­rian court­room) gen­er­ate an ap­pro­pri­ately Gothic at­mos­phere. By the time MacGre­gor reaches the end of his de­fence, one is thor­oughly ab­sorbed in his tale. So much so, that one could al­most for­get that what he is pre­sent­ing as an af­fir­ma­tion from be­yond the grave is, in fact, an act of the­atri­cal trick­ery.

The only trick in the Royal Lyceum’s fine pro­duc­tion of The Belle’s Strat­a­gem, Han­nah Cow­ley’s up­roar­i­ous sex war com­edy of 1780, is adapter/ di­rec­tor Tony Cownie’s clever and hi­lar­i­ous trans­po­si­tion of the ac­tion from Lon­don to Ed­in­burgh. Named af­ter Ge­orge Far­quhar’s early 18th-cen­tury com­edy The Beaux’ Strat­a­gem, Cow­ley’s play of man­ners sees male as­sump­tions and pre­sump­tions over­turned on the evening of a masked ball.

Young Leti­tia Hardy (An­gela Hardie on won­der­fully know­ing form) is be­trothed, by fam­ily ar­range­ment, to the dash­ing man-about-town Dori­court (the ap­pro­pri­ately sparkle-toothed Angus Miller). Find­ing him in­dif­fer­ent to­wards her, she re­solves first to re­pulse him and then, by means of the mas­quer­ade, make him fall in love with her.

Mean­while, the hap­less

Sir Ge­orge Touch­wood (the car­toon­ishly bril­liant Grant O’Rourke) seeks to shel­ter the in­no­cence of his young, coun­try bride Lady Frances (the clev­erly comic He­len MacKay) from the cor­rup­tions of city gen­tri­fi­ca­tion. In­evitably, this makes her all the more in­ter­est­ing to the rak­ish chau­vin­ist Cour­tall (the won­der­fully cad­dish Richard Con­lon). Here, too, the cover of the mas­quer­ade of­fers a means of hu­mor­ous jus­tice.

From the out­set, when we are warned that “Sasse­nachs” might not ap­pre­ci­ate his ver­sion of the play, Cownie’s adap­ta­tion plays hi­lar­i­ously and smartly with its re­lo­ca­tion to Scot­land’s cap­i­tal. A run­ning gag about a break-in at the Trea­sury and the mas­quer­ade cos­tume of the up­stand­ing Deacon Brodie is a comic treat, while Leti­tia’s ul­tra-Scot­tish dis­guise en­ables a gen­uinely lovely ren­di­tion, both in voice and on the harp, of the Ja­co­bite lament, Will Ye No Come Back Again?

The pro­duc­tion is per­fectly paced, beau­ti­fully acted across the piece (from Ni­cola Roy’s wily pros­ti­tute Kitty to Steven McNi­coll’s ab­surd Provost Hardy), with splen­did, colour­ful cos­tumes play­ing against suitably two-di­men­sional, mono­chrome sets (by de­signer Neil Mur­ray). It is an­other comic tri­umph for Cownie at the Lyceum.

The Vel­vet Evening Seance is an ut­terly ab­sorb­ing tale of jus­tice and the para­nor­mal

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