Amid a packed and enthusiastic pantomime programme in Scotland’s theatres this month, the Traverse’s seasonal offering under the artistic direction of Orla O’Loughlin is worth particular recommendation. That’s in large part, as ever, due to the quality of work the Trav puts on, but also because they’re rare in offering two shows, one for adults and one for children, so that no-one is forced to regress or to not get the jokes.
It’s worth noting upfront that the Trav’s children’s choice is in no way a second-rate, kiddie-focused add-on, but generally one of Scotland’s finest theatre events of the year for young people. Last year’s meta reworking of Black Beauty from Red Bridge Arts and the Traverse company was a big winner at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland this year, and while this winter’s take on Cinderella isn’t on the same technical scale, its creator and designer Shona Reppe – also the designer of Black Beauty‘s TARDIS-like horsebox set – has ensured its emotional weight defies its small scale.
The story (and this is a straight run at Cinderella, rather than a grand reimagining) is told on a small, stylised 1970s dressing table, which has been set with all manner of hatches and light fittings to create an evocative environment for the wide-eyed, rag-dressed Cinderella puppet which leads the story. The productions revels in its ingenious simplicity; this shy Cinderella doll, with her organically awkward long arms and legs, is one of the most technically complex props here.
Elsewhere, masterful puppeteer and performer Rick Conte – who enters the story late-on as an omnipotent Fairy Godfather – manipulates two jewelled and gaudy silk gloves as the Ugly Sisters and creates a ballroom scene out of spinning paper figures. Grown-ups more attuned to the year’s happenings might have been mildly disappointed to see the Disneyfied ‘marry a handsome prince and your troubles will be over’ line carried through without comment, but the children mesmerised by the peaks of warmth and kindness in the story’s telling know good work when they see it.
Besides, social realism arrives by the bucketload, at least initially, in Morna Pearson’s How to Disappear, directed by Traverse associate director Gareth Nicholls who did such a stunning job with the Glasgow Citizens’ revival of Trainspotting in 2016. We arrive in the bedroom of young Robert (Owen Whitelaw) in Elgin, north-east Scotland, a jumbled, yellow-stained bunker into which he has shut himself and his clear mental troubles. The twenty-something is cared for by his teen sister Isla (Kirsty Mackay), bullied at school and already looking forward to a bleak future as the light of young hope dies in her.
Performed in Doric Scots, as are all of Pearson’s plays, How to Disappear is a sharply-observed and blackly amusing social realist play which illustrates the grim facts for those on benefits and young carers, particularly where mental illness is concerned. Sally Reid is terrific as the pair’s interloping nemesis, benefits assessor Jessica, dialling down her aptitude for comedy just enough to lend bite when she declares herself “the best there is at catchin’ faik oot” when they’re “oan the seek”.
All three are rich, human and relatable characters, qualities which are required when the play sharply changes direction once the forbidden cupboard in the corner of the room is opened and Becky Minto’s stunning hidden revolving set is revealed. The fantastical mirror-universe scenario which emerges offers Jessica the chance for her own Scrooge-like conversion, although the sense of stratospheric suspension of disbelief coupled with thickly-spread seasonal resolution would do a Doctor Who Christmas special proud.