A luminous script and a striking central performance astound in the first full-scale outing for Douglas Maxwell’s transcendent Britpop fairy-tale. Unravelling like It’s A Wonderful Life rebooted by Irvine Welsh, the fates of big-hearted Glaswegian fixer-upper Charlie ‘Chick’ Sonata and his best friend’s terminally ill daughter, Audrey, intersect during one endless hospital night.
Charlie Sonata is a triumphant return to form for Maxwell after the over-ambitious sprawl that was 2015’s Fever Dream: Southside. Contracting the action to one character and one story suits Maxwell’s writing well and gives him space to develop the beautiful, broken humanity that is his artistic calling-card. As always, Maxwell’s superb ear for the Glaswegian tongue grounds his surreal creations in the everyday, somehow creating a world that exists in that glorious intersection between the magic of a Grimm Brothers fairy-tale, and the magic of being fourteen and off your head on peach schnapps.
At the heart of the production, Sandy Grierson reasserts his status as one of the most consistently brilliant character actors on the Scottish stage. Chick is a fractured soul; a waster headed for the gutter. But with outstanding empathy, Grierson conjures a heart-breaking protagonist that somehow – even when surrounded by floating phone boxes and Bipolar fairy queens – manages to be the most ethereal thing onstage. He finds able support from the rest of the cast, making the most of the warm, bonkers and relatable characters that populate Maxwell’s script. The standouts are a wonderfully scatty Meg Fraser as Meredith, a possible murderer in light-up trainers who might just be Chick’s own fairy godmother; and Robert Jack, who projects bitter nostalgia as former academic golden boy Jackson, now king of his own soft-play castle.
Chick’s world of dizzying ups and downs is realised in Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s whimsical set design, a black stage illuminated by a dreamlike collection of fairground neons and disembodied set pieces, such as the TARDIS-like red phone box that transports Chick from Striling Uni circa 1994 to dangerous London streets; or the chorus of twinkling tutus that usher in many of Chick’s moments of epiphany. Matthew Lenton’s gestural, symbolic direction enhances the otherworldly atmosphere, characters drifting through Chick’s remembrances like ghosts while Grierson always provides an affecting, stalwartly naturalistic lynchpin.
It’s difficult to find fault with such a big-hearted, excellently realised production. Running straight through at one hour and fifty, it’s just a tad too long and trips over itself to make a neat knot of the ending, which in light of the well-structured build-up beforehand feels a little disappointing. Audrey’s parents— Chick’s friends Gary and Lisa— could use some fuller characterisation so that the audience invest more in them and their daughter’s plight.
But the sheer, honest love exuded by Charlie Sonata – for storytelling, for theatre, for mad nights out with broken people, for digging up phosphorescent fairy tales from life’s steaming piles of shit – is an experience that felt sorely needed in the Lyceum on Tuesday night and which seems far too rare, especially in new writing, where the cathartic urge to confront our bleak world with an even bleaker stage seems inescapable.
In one of Chick’s remembrances, his eyes latch onto the words ‘we need Comfort’ scrawled on his friends’ kitchen wall. Audrey explains it’s a shopping list. But to Chick it means something more – and to us too. If you need comfort, hope and a thrilling dose of wide-eyed wonder, Charlie Sonata is vivid and essential theatre.
Charlie Sonata is on until 13th May 2017 at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh. Click here for more details.