Chris Eldon Lee reviews “The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart”, which is at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme until Saturday 13th July
According to folk law, the Devil has all the best tunes. And in David Greig’s play he gets all the best lines too. ‘Strange’ is the apposite word in the title of ‘The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart’. It’s a curious, dishevelled, free-falling play, that wanders about from wild idea to weird concept, wicked witticism to painful pastiche…and – like the academic treatises it mercilessly sends up – it comes to a conclusion that barely makes sense. But it does have a huge amount of fun on the way.
Prudencia is a stayed, sensible scholar, studying ‘the topography of Hell as described in Scottish Border folk ballads’. But her choice of subject becomes an ‘invitation’ to the Devil in disguise, who just happens to be running a rather dodgy B&B close by a weed-strewn ASDA car park on a deserted council estate in Kelso. (In other words, Hell in a nut-shell!)
Being a perpetual student, she is captivated by his reference library and horrified that it is uncatalogued. A battle of wit and will ensues between the two. Tables are to be turned and a little love is to be found.
The play was originally performed in a Scottish bar and, with dirty glasses and forlorn chip papers, the New Vic does its best to recreate one on stage. But the set is also cluttered with tell-tale text-books and there is a trap door and spiral staircase that leads to the Devil’s lair.
The pub is holding its midwinter’s folk night. The snow is abominable, and the music is worse. (“Terrible folk music is quite normal”, sighs Pru). Armed with a digital recorder and following in the footsteps of Cecil Sharp and blind Fred Hamer, she tries to capture the songs for posterity. She is finally driven out into the silent snow by an outbreak of pub karaoke … straight into the arms of The Dark Stranger Who Leaves No Footprints.
My pocket precis probably gives the impression of simplicity. But Director Anna Marsland pulls the strings of an absurd, multi-layered piece that darts around all over the place and prides itself on being as far from straight forward as possible. It’s deeply disrespectful of pompous academia and would have Rabbie Burns disciples and Kylie Minogue fans heading for the door in equal numbers. But if you are in anarchic mood, and are prepared to wade through some flannel between the gripping moments, then it’s a memorable riot of an evening.
The ensemble acting is wonderfully over the top. David Fairs is ramrod evil as supernatural Nick…lunging, in a bi-polar manner, from being ice cool to tempestuously furious. Matthew McVarish is great fun as Prudencia’s academic adversary, the uncouth Colin, boasting that football chants are a perfectly valid branch of folk law.
Alice Blundell and Eleanor House are fine actor/musicians who showed no fear as they contorted themselves into burlesque ‘Corbies’ (mythical ravens) to try to drag Prudencia into the gutter. But they had no chance. Suni La plays the dowdy scholar with prim and proper precision (and quite a few witty put downs) until she meets her immortal match. She’s the only one with snow tyres and sensible shoes … but she kicks them off for the Devil.
Humour cuts through the play like a rapier; the fastest thrusts coming from the ridiculous rhymes; prudent/student, misquoted/bloated, chants/grants. Walter Scott is compared to Simon Cowell … and what James Blunt does to his testicles to reach his high notes is beyond belief.
When the music is good, it’s lovely; and when it’s bad, it’s meant to be….whilst the winter wind howls its eerie accompaniment.
Like all good folk ballads, there is a moral to the tale. In fact, there’s a smorgasbord of them … enough for the subject of another three-year thesis. The worrying thing is that someone with too much time on their hands is just bound to write it.