Foot-tapping joy in a devilish lock-in

The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart blends poetry, folk music and supernatural skulduggery to great effect.

Patrick Marmion

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When it comes to being out of touch, academics are popularly regarded as being down there with politicians. It comes as a great pleasure, therefore, that Scottish playwright David Greig can redeem that hoary old stereotype with The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart, a raucous tale of a buttoned-up Edinburgh lecturer who spends the night with the Devil after getting snowbound at a conference in the Scottish Borders.

The story is set in the winter of 2010 with its record quantities of snow. Despite equipping her car with winter tyres, our heroine, Prudencia Hart, is forced to join a dismal lock-in at a depressing pub in the small town of Kelso following a singularly miserable conference. Tweedy Prudencia’s doctoral thesis was on ‘The Topography of Hell in Scottish Balladry’, so with her unconscious already steeped in supernatural imagery, her academic fantasy becomes a nightmare reality.

Greig’s yarn is itself a love ballad to the Scottish love ballad. Its genius is to revivify the very traditional with the very new. It also draws on Robbie Burns’s ‘Tam O’Shanter’ poem about a drunken farmer who gets way-laid by spirits on the way home from a pub. Greig tells the story in rhyming couplets, but weaves in plenty of mischievous modern idiom with the character of Prudencia’s leery academic nemesis and Twitter-fiend, Colin Syme. Colin’s academic speciality is the study of chanting on football terraces and the evening climaxes with the audience singing ‘One Colin Syme’ to the tune ‘Guantanamera’ after the story’s chivalric climax. The result is as Scottish as a Burns Night in January – topped off with a deep-fried Mars bar.

Satire does, however, lie down with exquisite lyricism – especially in the second half, when Prudencia’s libidinal spirit is unleashed upon the world. It’s a faith of Greig’s rhyming couplets that by surrendering to the metre, rhythm will set him free. And yet this is not some kind of hippy folk night trading in Scottish mysticism. Instead, it draws on the radical traditions of John McGrath’s 7:84 Theatre Company, which was set up in the 1970s to challenge the seven per cent of the UK population who owned 84 per cent of the wealth. McGrath toured outlying pubs and clubs with plays steeped in popular culture and fighting the forces of cultural homogeneity. Rolling up in London with the help of the Royal Court Theatre, this National Theatre of Scotland production has had to settle for the London Welsh Centre – which serves Welsh beer below a signed Wales rugby shirt.

Despite the Celtic anomaly, the performance directed by Wils Wilson takes place in and around the tables and chairs on a swirly carpet under pitiless strip lights and mock Tudor rafters. Much as this represents an interior designer’s worst nightmare, it serves our heroine’s epic journey all the better. The atmosphere is created not with naturalistic lighting and scenery, but by melding oral storytelling tradition with a full battery of folk instruments – violin, accordion, pipes, the works. But if this suggests the spectre of Jimmy Shand, there is nothing to fear from tunes that range from knee-lifting ceilidh to thistly torch songs.

Most invigorating is the sense in which cast and audience are really in this together, with the cast weaving around the crowd and cavorting on tables. All five actors are handy musicians and ruddy singers, with Paul McCole as the leery Colin Syme and David McKay as the melancholy pint-sized devil with slicked back hair. Turn of the night though is from Melody Grove, who starts in thick woollens and plaited hair, before being reborn in Hell with glistening eyes and tangled locks. Her tweedy days behind her, she throws back her head to surrender herself to Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ on the pub karaoke. Even on a sticky hot summer’s night, the audience are rapturously transported.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent. Visit his website here: www.patrickmarmion.co.uk

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is at the London Welsh Centre, 157-163 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8UE until 3 August and at CLF Theatre, Bussey Building 133 Rye Lane, London SE15 4ST from 5-8 August. Tickets are available through the Royal Court Theatre box office on 020-565 5000.

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