David Harrower’s new play, A Slow Air, received its premiere at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre before transferring to the Traverse for the Fringe. This is a particularly appropriate, as Edinburgh and Glasgow (or rather Houston, a small satellite town of Glasgow and the home of the terrorists who botched an attack on the airport in 2007) provide the play’s two locations. But though Harrower’s two characters, brother and sister Morna and Athol, live only fifty miles apart from one another they have not seen each other in fourteen years.
Morna was a wild thing once and still clings on to that aspect of her character, revelling in stories of past misbehaviour and still partial to a drink; Athol is less volatile, more dependable. Comfortably off, he lives in a bungalow with his wife and runs a successful tiling business while Morna, who has raised her young son on her own, earns her living cleaning houses in Edinburgh’s more salubrious neighbourhoods.
Harrower takes his time sculpting these characters and their differing approaches to life, shading and shaping their stories, but from early on it’s clear that whatever drove these two apart was bigger than her preferring U2 over his band of choice, Simple Minds. That the reason for their split when eventually revealed turns out to be less cataclysmic than you’re first led to expect, is one of the play’s strengths, and it resists the obvious in favour of a murkier, less clear-cut explanation, a plausible collage of upsets and grudges.
A Slow Air is made up of two alternating monologues, with one character picking up the thread from where the other leaves off. It’s an elegantly constructed piece of storytelling, detailed and delicate, deft in its evocation of place (the play elicits several smiles of recognition from the audience), with the segments getting shorter and more interconnected as the siblings move towards a tentative reconciliation. Morna’s twenty-year-old son Joshua is the catalyst for this potential reunion and in Harrower’s hands this unseen character is also fleshed out, made visible.
Sometimes the writing seems to lose focus – Joshua’s unnerving obsession with Scotland’s “crap terrorists” is never fully explored or explained –but this ambiguity is in some ways appealing, the play’s disinclination to drop things into neat boxes. Harrower has a strong grip on the emotional power of the piece and the production, which he also directs, builds to a moving conclusion.
The siblings are played by real life brother and sister, Lewis and Kathryn Howden. Kathryn’s Morna can be mouthy and aggressive but also tender and concerned, desperate to give her son a birthday he’ll remember; Lewis’ Athol is cooler in comparison, his fleece zipped high. The nature of the piece means that they never get to interact – their lines are delivered standing side by side – but the strength of the performances and the writing nonetheless creates a poignant sense of connection between them.