Monday 15 August 2011

Ignoring the mould for the materialism

A Slow Air, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

David Harrower’s two-hander is an intricate portrait of neglect and decay, in which untended cracks become unbridgeable chasms. Both personal and political, A Slow Air is textured, meticulous and tender. Harrower might well have put it together with tweezers.

Forty-something siblings Athol and Morna (played by real-life brother and sister, Lewis and Kathryn Howden) haven’t seen each other in 14 years. Morna works as a cleaner in Edinburgh, her ambitions having long-since faded. Athol, whose bobbled fleece makes him seem mossy, runs a flooring company in Houston, the town that unwittingly housed the Glasgow Airport bombers; ‘Trust Scotland to produce crap terrorists’. When Morna’s twenty-one year-old son Joshua visits his uncle uninvited, he grows intent on forcing their reconciliation.

Told through intersecting monologues, A Slow Air is as precise a piece of writing as you’ll find. Its primary narrative is engaging enough, but, thanks to Harrower’s eye for metaphor and symbol, it’s the currents underneath the text that really make this special. Almost every moment is loaded with a hidden significance. Still waters do indeed run deep.

For Harrower’s focus is stagnancy. Morna introduces herself as unchanging: ‘Fasten your seat belts, it’s aw still, still, still wi me’. Both take the path of least resistance, ignoring unsightly problems for more immediate, trivial errands such as tax returns and birthday parties. Earning a living is task enough in itself. Without attention, however, problems fester like mould.

By embedding his characters so thoroughly in our world, Harrower, who also directs, skilfully suggests their unchecked rift mirrors those of the nation. Terrorism, the financial crisis and the rise of the SNP, he suggests, all stem from the same tendency. We have been distracted and placated by the meaningless comforts of boom-time, ignoring the mould for the materialism. Or as David Cameron has put it: ‘They didn’t fix the roof when the sun was shining’.

It’s beautifully performed, characterful yet casual and thoroughly engaging in its direct address. Lewis Howden brings the softness of old leather to Athol, while Kathryn Howden balances Morna’s hard edges, particularly her shirking of responsibility, with a personable sense of humour. Jessica Brettle’s eloquent design, in which dust gathers over layers of exposed flooring that resemble sedimentary rocks, perfectly encapsulates the meaning beneath this poignant, empathetic gem.


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