Dark secrets of middle England

Sylvia returns to her childhood village, but isn't prepared for the memories that are dredged up
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The Independent Culture

Life in Middle England is rarely as squeaky clean as its defenders would have you believe and the dark undercurrents swirling beneath the veneer of village respectability are at the heart of Cat Muir's black comedy, The Jumble Sale, which opens at the Edinburgh Festival tomorrow.

Muir grew up in expat communities - in the United States and the Middle East - which were, she says "more English than England". Her depiction of neighbourhood dynamics is also inspired by the home-counties community where a couple of her relatives live. "I was struck by the lengths inhabitants would go to to protect the reputation of this place," she says, "particularly when they closed ranks after a child narrowly escaped injury in a hit-and-run.

"Everyone suspected a prominent member of the community, but no one was prepared to ruffle any feathers. This got me thinking about how closely such carefully constructed mini-societies can resemble a house of cards."

In The Jumble Sale, the villagers' desire for continuity and cohesiveness takes on a Mafia-like quality. Sylvia has returned to the village that never really wanted her after contacting Rose - who never left it - through a reunion website. Both women are now in their fifties but - as they sort through the flotsam of other people's lives in preparation for a jumble sale - it becomes clear that, while each has revised her memories of their shared history, neither has moved on from the labels they carried at school.

Rose is still the Queen Bee, Sylvia is still adrift and desperately looking for the anchor of friendship. But beneath her sanitised exterior, Rose has a macabre secret and Sylvia is about to discover it.

This is 32-year-old Muir's first play and was created less than three months ago, following an introduction to director Neil Sheffield, who was on the lookout for a new drama. Her background is in film and television: this year she has worked with Daisy Donovan on a new series of Daisy Daisy for Channel 4, she has a BBC sitcom in development and is working on the script for a British action film set in Iraq.

Muir has made it her business to create interesting roles for women. But it wasn't until she had finished The Jumble Sale that she realised how rare it was to have a female three-hander in the theatre. Certainly, her characters have proved strong enough to attract actresses of the calibre of Barbara Hatwell (Brookside), Eileen Nicholas (Trainspotting) and newcomer Debbie Davies.

Having tried Friends Reunited, Muir was struck by how people's recollections of events could differ so completely. She saw that those who had moved on the least were the most happy to revert to their old school labels. Thankfully, there's little danger of that happening to Muir herself.

The Jumble Sale is at C Central, Edinburgh (0870 701 5105) tomorrow to 24 August

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