THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Tuesday 2nd July, 2019
First produced by the National Theatre of Scotland in 2011 as a piece of pub theatre, David Grieg’s engaging play gets a production on a grander scale at the New Vic. It begins as a meeting of academics at a conference about folk ballads and, as everyone speaks in rhyming couplets, there is a heightened sense to the narrative. We meet our heroine, the bookish, strait-laced Prudencia (Suni La) fighting her corner against pretentious naysayers and revisionists. We meet Colin (Matthew McVarish) blokey and annoying. We meet a host of characters as the ensemble of four populate the increasingly rowdy and drunken conference. It’s funny stuff and the humour is engendered and enhanced by the writing. The rhymes are sophisticated and witty; director Anna Marsland is at pains to retain the patterns of naturalistic speech without glossing over the rhymes. Grieg makes great use of enjambment and assonance and other things I barely remember from A Level English Lit.
Prudencia sets out in the snow to find a B&B… An encounter with a character from her beloved ballads changes things forever. ‘Nick’ (David Fairs) is all the more sinister because of his normalcy. He is in fact the Devil, come to take Prudencia to Hell.
It’s a play of two halves. After the verse of the first half, the second is mainly in prose. It gets a bit meta as Prudencia tries to use verse to assert power and make her escape.
Suni La makes Prudencia an appealing figure, who loosens up as the action unfolds. For her, Hell is a transformative experience. David Fairs is superb as the satanic Nick, funny, charming and formidable – scary at times. Matthew McVarish is great fun as the drunken Colin, the unwitting hero, and there is sterling support from Eleanor House as a moustachioed professor and Alice Blundell as a plaintive Woman. All the cast play musical instruments and sing, keeping the pub flavour of the entertainment going.
E. M. Parry’s design has books suspended like bunting – the books are integral to the storytelling, with illuminated pop-up versions displaying locations. Marsland uses books as stepping-stones to help Prudencia along her journey, which is symbolic as well as visually satisfying. Daniella Beattie’s lighting and charming projections enhance the storytelling nature of the piece. All levels of the auditorium are put to use, so while we don’t get the intimacy of a pub theatre, we are surrounded by the action as well as being part of it.
Irresistibly engaging, beautifully presented, and ultimately life-affirming, this unusual yet accessible play is a delight from start to finish. And who doesn’t enjoy a bit of Kylie? (And no, it’s not Better The Devil You Know)