It’s not an easy task pulling off genuine laugh-out-loud moments in what is ostensibly a grim play about benefit cuts. And yet Morna Pearson’s script, even as it plunges into bleakness, transcends it. From the cluttered and claustrophobic bedroom that serves as the set, to siblings Robert (Owen Whitelaw) and Isla (Kirsty Mackay), doing their best to get through life in harsh circumstances, there is an intriguing underlying suggestiveness willing us to look beyond these surfaces.
Third cast member Jessica, Benefits Assessor (Sally Reid), is certainly unable to see past her clipboard and paperwork to the individual being assessed – in this case her ‘client’ is Robert, who hasn’t left his room for twelve years. Jessica is also the one who causes most of the laughter. From her opening ‘I’ve bin sent here by the Tories, eh, nae the Tories, the DWP’, her ‘empathy deficiency’ cuts close to the sad truths that Pearson’s dark comedy feeds on.
Before long reality gives way to the supernatural, as moments of character revelation – Jessica’s marital discord, Robert’s inexplicable disease, and Isla’s school bullying in particular, which finds me in tears – are interspersed with moments of genuine mystery.
Director Gareth Nicholls’s stage realization, helped along by well-timed effects, slowly manipulates us towards the point where we’re ready to believe in the inexplicable. Mainly, though, it’s down to the actors and their believability that the audience allows itself to be swept up into an otherworldly experience in the most unlikely of places.
Whitelaw’s Robert is convincing as the shut-in misfit unable to express what’s kept him a recluse for so long, while Isla, the ‘right bessom’, perpetually on the verge of exploding with anger, possesses the right mix of teenage resentment of and protectiveness towards her older brother.
Jessica, our erstwhile villain, meanwhile, does sanctimony as well as she does slapstick, a certain brush with a spider leaving the audience in stitches. And perhaps, by the final act, she has found her way towards compassion… but that would be giving too much away. What I can advise is to expect the unexpected, and you’ll be well rewarded.
Photos courtesy of Beth Chalmers.
For more information or tickets on How To Disappear click here. It runs until 23rd December at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh.