In The Other Room Theatre’s brilliant production of Seanmhair (Scottish Gaelic word for grandmother), an old Edinburgh is brought to life with a haunting, and somewhat gothic-like, intensity. We meet ten year old Jenny trapped in the domestic vise of her home and the suffocating societal mores of her time – mores she has little time to understand as her innocence is hastily swept from beneath her tiny feet.
“Glimmer, glimmer, crack, crack”, go the poetic refrains throughout the play, constantly reminding the audience of how the proverbial and sparkling giddiness of a first love can become fractured at an unforgiving pace. Depraved circumstances prematurely hurl young Jenny into the universal agonizing challenges of adolescence as she takes refuge in the protective embrace of her Seanmhair. Certainly one gets the sense from the play, with its all-female cast, that such experiences are amplified for the female sex who are unfairly socialised to bear the iniquitous cross of family honour and shame from a very early age.
The play’s action takes place in the minimalist backdrop of a superbly designed set; a narrow, dank and, eventually damp, cobbled Edinburgh alleyway or backstreet – sites often transformed into playgrounds by children but a site where more sinister activities also occur. The gloomy urban visuals are perfectly orchestrated with the erratic rhythm of the characters’ emotions. Hywel John’s beautifully crafted and hypnotic prose leads the audience down into the ever claustrophobic location, incessantly feeding our juvenile intrigue and irresponsible appetite for what is a shocking story even by the standards of today.
The stellar cast do a dazzling job of commanding the variable tempo of the play, managing to captivate and maintain the audience’s focus in what admittedly can become quite a challenging narrative to follow at times. Molly Ververs delivers a strong performance as the young Jenny, the foundation upon which the other characters rest. Sian Howard does a fine job as the perceptive and sagacious Seanmhair (pronounced shen-a-var ), who ferociously protects little Jenny from the consequences of her actions while teaching her to stand tall. As the towering matriarch, Howard accomplishes the arduous undertaking of communicating a frustrated empathy as she simultaneously scolds and schools, judges and loves, Jenny who has yet to imbibe the language needed to make sense of all that she is experiencing. Her character also plays the important role of counterbalancing the brilliantly haunting and captivating performance delivered by Hannah McPake who allows herself to become possessed by a variety of characters (ten year old Tommy MacLaish being the most notable) in a remarkable feat of acting that was equally frightening as it was impressive to watch. With her performance, McPake seemed to embody all the demons (“Tommy MacLaish, you black eyed monster”) that Jenny and Seanmhair seek to exorcise by the end of the story which fades into a healing choral performance that seeks to unite the cacophony of poignant and tender voices that we have had the fortunate pleasure of being acquainted with.