Adelaide Fringe Review - Wee Andy at Holden Street Theatres

Review of Wee Andy, Holden Street Theatres, Saturday 3 March 2012

It seemed somehow sadly serendipitous to be seeing this play the night after it was reported that five people have been arrested in connection with gunshots being fired in Hindley Street on a busy Friday night.  This play dissects violence and the fallacious notions of 'respect' that inspires so much of it and, although set in a bleak Glasgow housing estate on the face of it a million miles away, it should rightly have resonance for us here in Adelaide in the way that it explores a largely unseen and unacknowledged sub-culture that exists in parallel, but without ever really interacting with, mainstream culture.  Without wanting to seem unduly pessimistic, if one stops to consider for a moment our own highly fractured and segmented society, the world of Wee Andy suddenly doesn't seem so far away after all.

This is a stunning piece of theatre.  Paddy Cunneen has created a muscular, powerful blank verse that is incredibly versatile and eminently suited to theatre.  Quite simply, this is the best contemporary verse I have ever heard on a stage.  Both down to earth and poetic, both narrative and rhapsodic, the language of the play is so rich in its imagery and the evocations of both scene and atmosphere so compelling that there were moments when the audience seemed to be collectively holding their breaths as they were transported to the scene of the crimes that are at the heart of the action.

Mr Cunneen's direction is also exemplary.  The play is staged very simply (no setting, a couple of chairs the only furniture) and so the language is accordingly allowed to do the work.  Movement on the stage is measured and minimal on the whole (but at times, suddenly explosive), yet the events being recounted are frenetic and disturbingly violent.  This contrast is wonderfully effective and allows the actors to exploit the language to maximum effect.  There are some very simple devices employed to show the end results of the violent acts that take place in the play - rubber bands on the head are used to show knife wounds, cling film the horrifying effects of an acid attack - but they were entirely appropriate and effective.  Mr Cunneen's language here again takes the credit - we don't need to see a literal depiction of someone whose face has been slashed with a knife as the playwright has already shown it to us in words.

The acting on display is also first class.  Although I may have been carried away by the language, the actors are not - they treat it as though it is their natural speech and therefore, perhaps paradoxically, they are in this way able to give full weight to the graphic imagery and poetic turns of phrases with which they are working.  The narrative and the characters' plights drive them, not a desire to speak poetry and so, as should be the case in verse plays (but sadly usually is not) the structure and carefully crafted composition of the language almost passes us by as we become engrossed by the stories these characters have to tell.  It is a very strong ensemble cast, but the extraordinary performances of Pauline Knowles as Andy's Mum and Andy Clarke as the surgeon are of the sort that make sure, despite all the disappointments it so often brings us, the theatre keeps dragging us back in.  Ms Knowles' grief and bewilderment as she recounts hearing that her son has been horribly wounded in a vicious knife attack is mesmerising, while Mr Clarke exquisitely portrays the dilemma confronting the detached professional surgeon who is battling with his own pent up rage at having to stitch too many people back together.

We have not booked tickers for Fleeto, the companion piece to Wee Andy.  We shall be doing so first thing tomorrow morning.  Opportunities to see theatre as good as this come along rarely - we urge everyone not to miss this one.