Editorial Rating: 2 Stars Outstanding
nb. Long Live The Litte Knife is now on tour and plays at the Traverse this Saturday, March 7, at 7.30pm.
This is a show about having balls, which might explain our curious ‘2* Outstanding’ rating, but it doesn’t. That’s down to great acting.
Ballsy, I maintain. Both literally – the “little knife” of the title is the one used to emasculate castratos – and figuratively, too. So here’s a ballsy statement of my own: despite playwright David Leddy’s reputation, despite compelling and committed acting, and despite the plaudits heaped on the show during its run at the Edinburgh Fringe … it isn’t actually very good.
There’s just far, far too much packed in. The play’s themes include love, loss, art, infertility, deception, class, and modern slavery – all tackled at breakneck pace, with alternating comic and tragic tones. At the very end, Leddy brings out the darkest topic of all – one that’s proved more topical than he can possibly have feared when he penned the script back in 2013. But by that point, and perhaps to my shame, I was so overloaded that I couldn’t bring myself to care.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s fine for a script to seem anarchic, as long as there’s something constant threaded through it, something you can recognise and grab onto. The problem with Little Knife is that there’s no central premise – unless you count a foggy concept that things aren’t ever what they seem. The principal characters are confidence tricksters, and the script is pulling a kind of trick of its own: persuading us that, because we’re feeling slightly confused, there must be something deep going on.
But I’m sorry, there isn’t. And that’s a big shame – because there are the outlines of some thought-provoking themes visible through the murk. At one point, it seems that Leddy’s about to deconstruct the whole concept of verbatim theatre, an exercise which could be both entertaining and genuinely profound. But it goes nowhere: there’s some off-the-wall dialogue between an actor and a techie, then the theme is quietly dropped, never to be discussed again.
The avant-garde clichés are abundant – that on-stage techie, actors who announce that they’re actors, stage directions read aloud – and there’s an over-worked set-up for a final flourish, which on the night I attended was thoroughly ruined by a glowing fire-exit sign. As I write this, they’re tweeting that they bought all their equipment from a builder’s yard. So?
What redeems the show, however, are exquisite performances from Wendy Saeger and Neil McCormack, who acquit themselves with considerable distinction in extremely challenging roles. Out of character, they’re friendly and welcoming; once the story begins, they keep the energy high as events become more and more absurd. And on the few occasions they’re allowed a little time, they show intense sensitivity, dropping the mood in an instant as the pain in their past is revealed.
Saeger is particularly powerful when her character recalls a dying son; McCormack, meanwhile, endures a wince-inducing crux scene, which very few actors could make so horribly real. It’s worth watching the background, too, as their reactions to events are often as compelling as the cavorting in centre-stage. So it’s five stars for them – but alas, even stellar performances can’t counteract a thoroughly frustrating and self-indulgent script.
Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 25 February)
Go to Fire Exit here (!).
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