This month, the Traverse Theatre premieres Morna Pearson’s award-winning play How to Disappear. This tragi-comedy and social commentary, starring Kirsty Mackay, Sally Reid and Owen Whitelaw, combines the fantastical with the difficulty faced by benefit claimants in Tory Britain.
How to Disappear masterfully blends the absurd and fantastical with the mundanely relatable. Few of us have experienced inter-dimensional travel or are compelled to pluck out our own hair, but the very real struggle the play portrays, the fight to stay afloat against a callous and uncaring bureaucracy, is far more universal. There is something which speaks to everyone, be it nationality, political orientation or even a liking for Aussie soap Neighbours. The dialogue is a well-balanced pairing of comedy and toe-curling cringing, such as Robert peeling off and licking his own skin. Yet, even in the bleakest moments, the audience is laughing.
Mackay, Reid and Whitelaw all deliver faultless performances in a play which is very tightly written and leaves little space for error. Whitelaw brings a committed physicality to the role that is perhaps the hardest to relate to; Robert, a twenty eight year old eccentric who has not left his bedroom in twelve years. Kirsty Mackay’s Isla gives How to Disappear an emotional sincerity and grounding in reality which is lacking in the other two, who at times risk being reduced to caricatures. As benefits officer Jessica, Sally Reid is the obvious villain in the piece. She plays this role with careful restraint, yet it is her character evolution that gives How to Disappear shape.
The dialogue is supple and spry, moving rapidly between quick-comedy exchanges and Shakespearean monologues, laden with pathos and full of high drama. The content of these monologues is often jarringly absurd, such as the desire to kill the children who harass you from the street, or the fear that you have been impregnated by a tarantula called Harold. Yet this juxtaposition draws attention to one of the central conflicts of the piece; How to Disappear portrays a struggle which is a long way from the reality of the lives of many in the theatre audience.
Becky Minto’s set has incredible attention to detail. Robert’s bedroom, where the entire play takes place, is created very naturalistically. The walls are covered in notes and scribblings; magazines are stacked high in corners; there are boxes full of forms and scraps of paper. Overall there is the sense of a set which is rich in information and clever touches. At times this is overwhelming, especially as the dialogue is quite intense. The innovation of the spinning stage and inversion of Robert’s room, taking us to a new place without ever having really gone anywhere, is effective and gives the set some dynamism. The lighting adds to the fantastical elements of the play with the effects creating a sense that Robert’s room is suspended in space. Michael John McCarthy’s heavy, Stranger Things-esque synth underlying the whole performance provides a fresh and contemporary sound, without being too ham-handed in approach.
How to Disappear is a compelling and emotive social-commentary unlike any you have seen before. The plot is complex and head-spinning but masterfully drawn together for a shocking reveal.
How to Disappear
Runs until 23rd December
Photo credit: Beth Chalmers