On a cold Wednesday evening it was pleasantly surprising to find MacArts in Galashiels nearly full for the touring production of STUFF by Sylvia Dow. The play began with two actors sitting opposite each other on a darkened stage with a stack of boxes at the back, the crash of thunder over the speakers, and what appeared to be an over acted rummaging amongst the boxes. It had a hint of the am-dram about it, but this was soon dispelled and is perhaps the only criticism of what was a quietly understated production in terms of both writing and set design; the apparent simplicity of each beguiling.
Acted by only four female actors, the play is ostensibly about the stuff that surrounds us and the things we chose to keep, the central story revolves around Magda, who had a hoarding compulsion. But, as the story unfolds, it becomes a meditation on the value and weight of things – do we own them or do they own us – on mother and daughter relationships, and the weight of memory. It is this thematic depth that makes STUFF a memorable production. Carol Ann Crawford is superb as Magda, drawing us in and making us care about an eccentric older woman on the verge of her home being invaded by social services. Magda clearly has problems with her mental health, but as a character she never descends into caricature – a sensitivity that’s often lacking in writing around mental health. Sylvia Dow expertly invites the audience to experience Magda’s reality, fostering empathy with her and allowing for a deeper understanding of the compulsion to collect and keep too many things.
STUFF is set over the course of a few hours, but time is handled adeptly using a mixture of sound production and stage design to allow the audience to understand that Magda is experiencing a series of flashbacks triggered by the things she owns. As STUFF unfolds it’s possible to understand the production isn’t really about stuff at all, but instead about how we do or don’t deal with the past, how much it controls our day to day, and the measures that need to be taken to exorcise memory.
When STUFF opens it looks like the set design consists of two chairs and some covered cardboard boxes along with an umbrella stand, as the play unfolds the cardboard boxes are turned to face the audience, where inside are dioramas depicting the disarray of the inside of the house, Magda’s memories, and maybe even the chaos inside Magda’s mind. John and Jeanine Byrne are to be commended for their work on the design of the play, and it was an absolute delight when, at the end, the actors brought the boxes to the front of the stage for the audience to inspect closer. This additional way of layering and adding to the narration of the overall story is not only incredibly clever, but it also enhances the play as a whole, and means that the production takes on a polish it wouldn’t otherwise have. The same can be said of the sound by Phillip Pinsky, of particular note is the way Magda’s heartbeat is amplified when she’s experiencing a panic attack, placing the audience inside Magda’s experience.
Although at times the other characters lacked depth and the conflict between Magda and her daughter was perhaps a little too easily resolved, in all STUFF is a memorable production, and is worth going to see when it tours the rest of Scotland before finishing at The Traverse on the 6th and 7th November.
Photo courtesy of Sally Jubb.