The Monstrous Heart

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Three stars

Until November 2


Paisley Arts Centre

Three stars

Touring until November 2

Faith Healer

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Four stars

At PFT until November 3,

then touring until November 16

The set for this premiere production of Oliver Emanuel’s play The Monstrous Heart (which is directed by Gareth Nicholls for the Traverse and the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough) suggests that a disquietingly absurdist drama is in the offing. In a remote, Canadian log cabin sits a large wooden table upon which is slumped a massive, dead brown bear, a huge scar disfiguring its upper body.

It is here that we encounter Mag and Beth, an emphatically estranged (English) mother and her (Scottish) daughter. Beth (recently released from her latest, four-year stretch in prison) has tracked down Mag (who has retreated to the wilds of Canada to escape both her own personal demons and her wayward daughter).

Despite the strangeness promised by the play’s striking, predominant image, the play is disappointingly conventional. The plot (Mag’s chaotic former life, and consequent neglectful parenting, lie at the base of Beth’s delinquency, criminality and formidable rage) is delivered with the stark directness of a condensed soap opera.

As the two characters face off, one can’t help but wish that Emanuel had treated his characters’ confrontation with the bleak and subtle humour of Edward Albee or Harold Pinter. Paradoxically, the dark, ambiguous insinuations of plays such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Homecoming carry far more emotional resonance than Emanuel’s uncomplicated and (in a misconceived dream sequence in which the dead bear speaks to Mag) poorly structured storytelling.

Which is a pity because Charlene Boyd gives a bravura performance as the menacing Beth, while Christine Entwisle is excellently transformed (by booze) as Mag. Both deserve characters that are less narrowly drawn, and a play that is less obviously destined (like a degraded version of Euripides) for a melodramatic conclusion.

If Emanuel’s play is a work of relatively straightforward naturalism masquerading as something more theatrical, Frances Poet’s Fibres (directed by Jemima Levick for the Citizens Theatre Company, Glasgow and Scotland’s women’s theatre company Stellar Quines) is dealing in the stuff of very immediate, very urgent reality. Cases of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses are more prevalent in Scotland than anywhere else in the world. They are also increasing year-on-year.

Many of the workplaces, such as the Clydeside shipyards, where workers were poisoned with asbestos may have gone, but the illnesses (which tend to have a latency period of 20 to 50 years) are, sadly and devastatingly, very much with us. In Poet’s play husband and wife Jack (a former shipyard worker, played by Jonathan Watson) and Beanie (a retired laundrette worker, played by Maureen Carr) are both struck down by asbestos-related cancer.

The drama deals movingly with the appalling impact of the diagnoses, not only on Jack and Beanie, but also on their daughter Lucy (Suzanne Magowan). Carr impresses in a strong cast, as her character (through her own learning following Jack’s diagnosis) also functions as our (the audience’s) educator about the history and impact of asbestos.

The balance between family drama and education is a tricky one, which Poet deals with sensitively and intelligently. However, the introduction of Lucy’s boss, Pete (Ali Craig), as her love interest, feels somewhat shoehorned and, ultimately, sentimental.

Nevertheless, Fibres is an affecting piece about an important, too often neglected, subject. As Beanie says in the play, the many major companies who used asbestos in the workplace (and it still exists in most of Scotland’s post-war public buildings) knew the fatal dangers of the substance. They simply calculated that the profits would be much greater than the potential compensation claims.

In closing her first, extended summer season with Faith Healer, by the late, great Irish dramatist Brian Friel, Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s artistic director Elizabeth Newman has kept the best until last. The play (which embarks on a Highlands and Islands tour following its run at PFT) is a brilliantly original imagining of the lives of Francis Hardy (an Irish faith healer who has plied his dubious trade around the down-at-heel town halls of Scotland, Wales and Ireland), his wife, Grace, and his manager, Teddy.

Told by way of four monologues (the opener and closer are reserved for Frank himself) it is a surprisingly moving contemplation of the faith healer’s questionable art, of memory and of the unreliability of the narratives we construct for our lives. Newman’s production is tight and atmospheric, due in no small measure to the captivating, beautifully nuanced performance of the ever-excellent George Costigan in the title role (a man at once peacock proud, racked with self-doubt, yet undeniably charismatic).

Kirsty Stuart (Grace) and Richard Standing (Teddy) are both too young for their roles. Stuart’s deeply moving performance transcends this problem, but Standing (good though his playing is in many regards) lacks the ingratiating and timeworn aspects that are so crucial to his character.

For tour dates for Fibres, visit:

For tour dates Faith Healer, visit: