We Are In Time/Scottish Ensemble

Perth Theatre

Keith Bruce

five stars

ALONGSIDE the many other layers of meaning director Stewart Laing suggests can be inferred from the title of what is surely the most adventurous of the many bold collaborations that have been undertaken by the Scottish Ensemble under Jonathan Morton’s leadership and artistic direction, we may add that this show has opened during a stonking week for cutting-edge contemporary music theatre in Scotland.

Composed by Icelander Valgeir Sigurdsson to text and libretto by Pam Carter and staged by Laing’s Untitled Projects in association with Perth Theatre, this world premiere travels on to Glasgow’s Tramway on Friday and Saturday before visiting the Traverse in Edinburgh and Inverness Eden Court, by which time everyone will be talking about it.

A twelve-strong edition of the string group is also the vocal chorus for what is perhaps best described as a fully-stage modern cantata, the soloists being Kathleen Ferrier prize-winning mezzo Ruby Philogene, and multi-disciplinary Californian Jodie Landau, like the composer a member of Iceland’s Bedroom Community record label collective. They enter the narrative, spoken by actor Alison O’Donnell, of BBC detective series Shetland fame, a little through the evening, as the donor and recipient in a heart transplant operation, the story of which unfolds with heart-stopping timing as well as clinical precision, to the finale of the work.

Before that Carter and Sigurdsson give O’Donnell and the singing and playing musicians an illustrated biology lecture to deliver, with some detail of the workings and history of the medical profession as well. It is witty and fascinating, full of ear-catching lines and with a score that references early music as well as traditional. As the story darkens, the music seems to become lighter, Landau’s voice using some of the same palette as the Beach Boys and a Philogene’s later aria of survival rates in transplant surgery having a distinct resemblance to the sound of Glasgow’s Blue Nile.

The players costumed, by Sabrina Henry, in a preppy take on operating theatre scrubs, the parallel between the chamber group and a surgical team is the final metaphor in production that wears its substantial technical achievements lightly, and is, critically, full of heart.