David Greig and Wils Wilson
Royal Exchange Theatre Company
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
December 4, 2021-January 15, 2022; 2hr 25min
So hell is a lonely B&B on the outskirts of Kelso in Scotland, with a view of the nearby Asda car park. A reasonable proposition, you might think.
Prudencia is a young academic specialising in “folk studies”, a very sensible woman who sees through the empty verbiage of many of her colleagues. But she’s done her PhD on the topography of hell as described in Scottish balladry, and one night, after a particularly boring academic symposium in Kelso and an almost equally boring visit to a folk club there, she’s unexpectedly invited to stay with Mr Infernal Majesty himself… for eternity.
It’s been described as a musical play, and, after remarkable success with the National Theatre of Scotland and a world tour that included six months in New York, it now becomes the Royal Exchange’s Christmas show (or winter solstice show, as there’s some half-hearted snow but very little else that’s Christmassy).
The musical side is mainly in the form of today’s version of a folk group rendering old songs, all down to the expertise and talent of musical director and performer Malin Lewis, with members of the otherwise five-strong company. It seems in the original production it was done as a ceilidh in a pub, with the audience seated at tables and mopping up the whisky: the Royal Exchange provides theatre in the round, but perhaps not quite the same atmosphere.
The piece is like a long ballad in itself, much of it in rhyming couplets, and it shifts mysteriously from the recognisably real world to the supernatural one (as ballads do). After last orders in the pub, the folklore world opens up (in contrast to the stilted Dylan-esque “folk” music on offer from a few oldies beforehand), and it’s all about “sex, song and violence”.
Well, you should be so lucky (and it does turn into The Devils’ Kylie, as well as Ceilidh, at the end, as Pru finally loses her inhibitions in a karaoke spot). Prudencia finds that her personable host at the B&B is none other than a modern Mephistopheles, and her visit to his sanctum forms the effective switch from the first to the second Act (most of the design work by Max Johns has gone into the setting we see after the interval).
She finds herself falling in love with him, but (in a kind of refraction of the Faust story) the love of a good woman – ie, hers for him – provides the way of escape for her and a return to the world she left, where another, decent but boring, academic bloke seems a better alternative. Or was this all a dream?
It's a rather rambling, all-points-visited tale, and in Debbie Hannan’s production, without the ceilidh ambience, doesn’t quite click.
The great redeeming feature is Joanne Thomson’s performance as Prudencia, which makes her an alert, aware and very likeable person, in no need whatever of Undoing or any other makeover, and transcends the somewhat laboured and satirical referencing in the script.
Tickets and into here