Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Four stars

Until March 21

Transferring to Tramway, Glasgow,

March 25 to April 11

I Think We Are Alone

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Four stars

Touring until May 16


Bertolt Brecht’s play about Puntila (a capitalist who is liberal and benevolent when drunk, and a viciously exploitative swine when sober) and his chauffeur Matti is, arguably, the funniest drama in the oeuvre of the great Marxist dramatist. Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti (Denise Mina’s adaptation, in which the titular factory owner is feminised and played by Elaine C Smith) is an impressive, often hilarious, new version.

A co-production by the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre company and DOT Theatre of Istanbul, this starkly modernist staging is directed by Murat Daltaban. As with his unforgettable 2017 production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Daltaban employs the talents of designer Tom Piper and composer/musician Oguz Kaplangi.

The director exhibits a strong grasp of Brecht’s politicised aesthetic, in which “alienation techniques” cut against audience expectations of escapism. Piper’s set, for example, constantly announces itself as a theatrical construct. Comprised of metal scaffolding and razor wire, it is decorated with the paraphernalia of the Scottish landowning class (complete with trophy stags’ heads).

The set is a constant whirl of activity as makeshift rooms on wheels, a huge wooden staircase and a dining table hastily constructed from plastic crates, come and go. Kaplangi’s rock-infused music and sound (which he performs live from high up on a scaffold) is variable in its dramatic effectiveness; a fine rendition of the Italian anti-fascist anthem Bella Ciao is powerfully affecting, but other songs suffer from the lyrics being inaudible (a decidedly un-Brechtian trait).

The production boasts a talented, energetic ensemble of actors who understand Brecht’s method in creating such vivid archetypes as a corrupt judge and a venal bishop, both of whom have their noses in the trough. However, Joanne McGuinness’s rendering of Puntila’s daughter Eva would benefit from being a slightly less stiff, stereotypically ditzy Morningside princess.

Overall, the production’s take on Brecht’s techniques is a suitably frenetic and jagged reflection of Puntila’s erratic attitude to life, love and the working class. Elaine C Smith makes the comic monster her own, playing Puntila as a decidedly Glaswegian, nouveau riche member of the bourgeoisie.

When sober, she’s as entitled and as resentful of trade unions as Donald Trump, and as cynically calculating. She is, for instance, unwavering in her insistence that Eva make a marriage of convenience to the hapless attaché (Richard Conlon). However, when she’s back in her more beneficent, inebriated state, she wants Eva to marry for love, and dismisses the attaché with a spectacularly Weegie profanity.

If Smith is excellent and distinctive as the alcoholic businesswoman, Steven McNicoll is outstanding as the class conscious chauffeur. Reading the Socialist Worker in his down time, he reminds the upper orders of the real conditions of (in Mina’s superb, crisp-yet-supple adaptation) the 21st century working class. With the knowing confidence of the self-educated Scottish worker, the actor combines Brecht’s political insight with the seemingly effortless comic timing of Chic Murray.

From one of the most famous plays of the 20th century to a new piece, written by Sally Abbott in-line with the collaborative, devised theatre ethos of acclaimed English theatre company Frantic Assembly. I Think We Are Alone is a beautifully put together piece in which fragments of individual, working class lives come together and connect over the duration of the play.

Co-directed by the super-talented Kathy Burke and Scott Graham, and co-produced by Frantic Assembly, Theatre Royal Plymouth and Curve theatre company, it is a work of tremendous theatrical skill and unashamed, beautiful humanism.

Two sisters, Ange and Clare, are separated catastrophically by a mutual, childhood trauma that they find unspeakable. They are, typically of the production, played with affecting depth and empathy by Charlotte Bate and Polly Frame (the latter of whom will be familiar to Edinburgh Lyceum audiences from her fine performance in the lead role in Solaris in September of last year).

Elsewhere, Ange connects with Manny (Caleb Roberts), a bright, working-class African-Caribbean young man who’s struggling to find his identity as a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. The life of Manny’s bereft mother Josie (Chizzy Akudolu) intersects with that of deeply troubled taxi driver Graham (Andrew Turner), who is losing his beloved wife Bex (Simone Saunders).

Other connections abound in an almost seamless human matrix which, were it not for its palpable construction, could pass for verbatim drama (so emotionally truthful is Abbott’s script). The versatile, minimalist set enables some powerful moments of physical and visual metaphor, from the unbearably stressful nature of Ange’s work as nurse in a cancer hospice to Clare’s sense of being trapped by anguish and guilt.

This is political theatre without polemic and emotive drama without saccharine sentiment. Performed by a brilliant ensemble (and, for readers in the Borders, playing at Northern Stage in Newcastle, April 21-25), it is a refreshingly honest, hopeful and humane work of theatre.

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