David Greig’s writing is acutely observant, sharply funny and dextrously imaginative. In his best work this quicksilver wit is anchored by a real empathy for his characters. Even when he’s poking fun at them, he stays on the right side of sneering. This warmth heats up the deep-winter setting of this Royal Court transfer of a play first staged by National Theatre Scotland in 2011.
Prudencia Hart is a pursed-lipped, traditionalist expert on Scottish border ballads. Readings of these folkloric tales that talk about the death of the author, the radical subversion of patriarchal language or their legacy in football chants and Twitter bring her out in hives. But, still, she needs to earn a living – which is how she ends up at a conference in the Scottish borders on the worst midwinter evening in living memory.
After her talk on the topography of Hell in border ballads goes down like a lead balloon, she finds herself stranded in the village when her car is buried in snow. Desperate to escape her boorish academic nemesis, Colin, and a gaggle of pissed women in the local boozer, she slips out to find a B&B. But on this night, so local legend claims, the Devil goes in search of souls – and who should she meet but Nick, the kindly hostel owner?
This half of the play is a silly, witty and noisily hilarious paean to the ballad form and pub entertainment, with the audience seated at tables in the upstairs bar of the Welsh Centre as the multi-talented cast sing in rhyme, dance ceilidhs and play instruments. For all of Greig’s effortlessly informed jibes at academia, what powers the first hour is the sheer joy of sharing a drink and being told a story. We’re not huddled around a fire, but the effect is the same.
Ballads migrate through the years, changing to fit the teller and the time. Greig knowingly weaves his own tale within this inheritance, acknowledging the pattern (with added Kylie Minogue at the end) while staying true to its spirit. And director Wils Wilson ensures that we are involved, too, with the actors clambering over tables and using audience members as makeshift props. (Incidentally, fellow Exeunt-er Dan Hutton makes a surprisingly convincing motorbike.)
The only point at which things sag is an over-long sequence in which the cast dress up as four drunk women. The joke outstays its welcome and, unlike the freshness of Greig’s mixing of modern stereotype and balladry elsewhere, their by-numbers portrayal is disappointing. It might be a convincing representation of how boring we get after a few beers, but it feels self-indulgent rather than inclusive of the audience.
But this is a minor grumble about a show that morphs into something strange and poignantly beautiful after the interval, as Prudencia finds herself spending millennia with the Devil as trees push through the ASDA car park outside Hell (the B&B) and she realises how narrow her view of the world has been. Her ‘undoing’ is as much about the shedding of mental armour as it is about a downfall.
The production changes key as Greig delves into themes of loneliness and love as Prudencia and the Devil, locked away together for eternity, discover that prose is no substitute for the power of poetry and meter to sweep you up and transform you into someone new with every beat. A scene in which they dance together with fragile need is almost unbearably moving. To live prosaically is no life at all.
Throughout, the cast fill the space with life and energy while evoking a haunting emptiness lurking at the edge of the bright lights and the buzz of the bar. Melody Grove is superb as Prudencia, brittle and buttoned-up at the start and wildly desolate but liberated into self-awareness in captivity. Paul McCole and David McKay adeptly juggle the demands of playing two facets of the omnipresent Devil.
It makes perfect sense that this show should have toured from one country to another. Ballads reinvent themselves across borders, latching on to everyday lives of those at the margins, pushed to the sides of society. In one unnerving, dream-like sequence in a burned out council estate, Prudencia encounters a woman clutching a vodka bottle and singing a lament. Greig allows the moment to play itself out. Grief is timeless.