Arts & Edinburgh: A miracle of stillness

THEATRE Happy Birthday, Mister Deka D Traverse Theatre, Venue 15 (0131-228 1404 to 4 Sept

AS THE lights go down, the wistful descending phrases of Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" wash over you. It's a clue to the atmosphere of sweet melancholy that pervades this beautifully crafted, peculiarly absorbing production from the genuinely innovative Told by an Idiot company.

Smiling fixedly into the distance and wearing a party hat crown, Mister Deka D (Richard Clews) sits astride the light bursting through the splintered floorboards of Naomi Wilkinson's arrestingly raked set. Meanwhile, Lika (Hayley Carmichael) idly reads a newspaper behind the bar of her deserted and run-down pub. Suddenly, the jarring sound of a doorbell rips through the charged silence. No one moves. The mounting tension of expectation is finally snapped by Trisk (Paul Hunter) who clambers up unexpectedly through a trapdoor. The ensuing action is generated through highly elliptical dialogue as a past relationship between Lika and Trisk is wittily teased out in passages of comic absurdity. Lika asks him to guess what is hidden in her hand. His wild guesses - "a submarine, a spaceship and a supermarket" - is greeted with a slap across the face. "You must have seen me pick them up," she cries, horrified. She is a woman who weeps to save up her tears for unhappy days to come.

Then there's Trisk's explanation of the shoes hanging around his neck. His mother told him: "Always take your shoes with you. You never know when you might find a road." Yet their journey of reminiscence is repeatedly fractured by fast-paced discussions leading nowhere. Sentences are taken at face value and, in this contrary universe, just when they pick up a thread of communication they are drowned out by an inexplicable noise. "When you get noisy neighbours, don't get even, get drilling," quips Trisk. Biyi Bandele's script and all three performances in John Wright's immaculate production are always playful. Carmichael in particular is an open book, her expressions changing like lightning as complex emotions are made flesh. Best known for their physical work, this is the first time the company has worked with a writer and Happy Birthday marks a further development of Bandele's diverse talent.

When Mister Deka D finally speaks, his words are sadly misplaced. "No bouts adoubt it," an echo, perhaps, of Caryl Churchill's Blue Heart. Yet the most obvious influence is Samuel Beckett. Happy Birthday shares his sense of the terrors of time as in, say, the helpless retelling of a relationship in Play. The lack of clear drive occasionally leaves you baffled, but if Bandele's dramatic ambitions aren't always quite matched by emotional legibility, the result is, nonetheless, a little miracle of stillness.

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