I don’t know that much about Su Pollard, only that she’s considered something of a national treasure. Before watching this show, my husband, a fully signed-up member of the SP fan club, gave me a brief crash course in the delights of Su (of which there are many), the highlight of which was a YouTubed video of her singing Back in the USSR with some very enthusiastic syncopated backing dancers.
Performing in this one-woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe is, I believe, something of a deviation in Pollard’s long-running career. And whilst it’s not as immediately impressive as when she sang The Beetles, it’s not entirely without its charms.
Birdie, in the story written by Philip Meeks, is the archetypal old lady who would be entirely ignored by her neighbours were it not for the fact her presence causes them active annoyance. Actually, that’s not quite true. The irritation they could probably cope with (a little bit of ‘local colour’ to fashion dinner party anecdotes from), but it’s the fact Birdie’s way of living could potentially scrape a bit of their house price they can’t really stand.
As Birdie is told by well-intentioned social workers, ‘hoarding creates a challenged for the whole community.’ And this particular house, ‘ticks every hazard box going.’ Pollard performs back-dropped by a mountain of Stuff somehow epitomised by the centre-stage placing of a Somerfield carrier bag (there’s probably a few Kwiksave ones around too if you cared to search). There’s a Billy Bass poking out from a shelf, an assortment of shoeboxes and a real fish in a tank with seemingly no water.
Does Birdie’s ‘lifestyle choice’ really present a ‘challenge for the whole community’? Meek’s story seems to suggest it does, but not in the way the ‘community’ would like to admit. A heart, Harpy is a story of isolation and loneliness in old age and the exclusion of ‘weird’ people. She’s not a sweet old dear, even if you get to know her: she’s mean and offensive to her Home Help and deliberately antagonises Next Door. But that doesn’t translate into an excuse to dispose of her like an old supermarket bag.
In a metatheatrical quirk, the run of Harpy in Edinburgh has coincided with the World Health Organisation officially recognising hoarding as a medical disorder. A recent Guardian article by Josh Halliday explains that ‘hoarding is often linked to other serious mental health issues, such as childhood trauma or clinical depression.’
That’s the certainly the case with Birdie, although Harpy is clever enough not to lay it out in over-simplistic or simplified terms. Among the Pollard-esque moments of hairbrush karaoke and a run of old-school jokes, the revelation of what made Birdie start hoarding is genuinely quite shocking in the suddenness of its appearance in the script.
Admittedly, this is not the most polished, well-performed or experimental piece of theatre on offer in Edinburgh this year. But despite its flaws, it’s lovely to see a play that attends so closely to a group of people normally ignored. Wade (carefully) through the mess and there’s something worth keeping.
Harpy is on until 26 August 2018 at Underbelly Cowgate. Click here for more details.