Joan Eardley: A Private View

The Old Ropeworks, Montrose

Jan Patience

five stars

THREE actors, a host of characters, and an old ropeworks in Montrose. An audience of around 50 souls have gathered on a wet Friday night to watch the life and loves of painter Joan Eardley unravel in front of our eyes in this intimate industrial space, with its exposed rafters and scuffed wooden floorboards.

The action, in Anna Carlisle's play for Heroica Theatre Company, opens in a messy artist's studio with a stooped small dark haired figure in a smock standing in front of an easel addressing the audience directly as we gather round.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" she asks one woman, before yelling to an absent assistant to put the kettle on.

With this direct one-to-one exchange, the audience is hooked and taken on a 75-minute promenade by a mesmerising Alexandra Mathie as Eardley. John Kielty plays several roles, including Eardley's vulnerable friend, Angus Neil (a beautifully nuanced performance), Glasgow School of Art tutor, Hugh Adam Crawford, a London gallerist, and 12-year-old Andrew Samson, one of a large family from Townhead in Glasgow whom Eardley drew and painted.

Ashley Smith leaps chameleon-like from one role to the next with preternatural agility. One minute an eight-year-old with boundless energy, the next the coolly sophisticated Lady Audrey Walker, with whom Eardley appears more than a little infatuated. Other roles played by Smith include Eardley's lifelong-friend from art school, Margot Sandeman, and Lil Neilson, Eardley's lover in her final years before her early death aged 42 in 1963.

This touring production feels like it is finally breaking down the barriers to understanding the power behind Eardley's paintings. By scraping away the layers of this complex and fiercely talented individual, the audience is given a fleeting glimpse into her inner life. It made me weep – and that was a good thing.

Touring until 10 June