The Girl with Red Hair, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Snapshots of a life cut short

By Lynne Walker
Monday 28 February 2005 01:00

There's more action on the pavement outside Edinburgh's Lyceum than on stage on the opening night of Sharman Macdonald's play The Girl with Red Hair. The paparazzi are out in force to snap Keira Knightley, Macdonald's film-star daughter, whose birth coincided with Macdonald's first big hit, When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout, 20 years ago.

The departure from the family home of Keira and her brother partly inspired Macdonald's script, which meanders around how to cope with the gap left by the loss of a child. In the play, the void is caused by the death of the red-haired Roslyn, whose presence is restricted to a few ghostly glimpses by an over-imaginative child. Her aura hangs like a pall over those that are left, her short life pieced vaguely together by scanty reminiscences of her final hours.

The Girl with Red Hair is a gently elegiac piece, which drifts like the wood on Robert Don's handsome beach setting, evoking a sun-suffused coastal village in Scotland's East Neuk.

Eight characters in search of closure are compartmentalised into different corners of the two-tier set. There's scarcely any interaction between the four pairs, whose dialogue is beautifully tailored to their contrasted ages and situations.

The two children, working through their emotions by playing "Let's pretend we're Roslyn", carry off their substantial parts with conviction. Helen McAlpine is the slightly crazy, mixed-up Izzy, for whom Roslyn used to babysit. She buzzes like an impatient fly around her pal (a promising early appearance from Joanne Cummins, still at drama college), her head filled with absurd notions of hellfire. A couple of older teenagers form another dimension to this soft-centred picture, their hormone-charged exchanges suggesting the kind of world that Roslyn inhabited.

Still numb from grief, Roslyn's mother (Patricia Kerrigan) goes dourly through the motions of running a café, her gradual thawing as warming as the sun on the hard surfaces of this strangely Mediterranean-like inlet. With her mellifluous voice, Kerrigan could narrate the official lifeboat instruction manual and still be compelling.

Macdonald applies her sharpest skills of observation in the frustrated hopes, fears and steely determination of the older women, allowing humour to lighten theatmosphere. The characterisation of the sexagenarian biddies, played to perfection by Sandra Voe and Sheila Reid, is worth the price of the ticket alone.

In a very different study of timeless personal tragedy, Terry Hands' reading of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, at the Clwyd Theatr Cymru, is a compelling snapshot of a pointless war, in which the gods have vanished and the conflict is being dragged out by greedy, squabbling warriors.

For ancient Greek heroes, read fallible human beings afflicted by "the common curse of mankind - folly and ignorance". Helen of Troy is sidelined - doubts are expressed as to whether or not her beauty was worth the trouble of her abduction - and the Trojan horse has yet to be shod, far less bear gifts.

The production is stripped back and Johan Engels' set reflects the austere approach. The bare grey stage is strikingly adorned by single images such as a golden head, a galloping steed in metal cut-out and a forest of suits of glittering armour.

Gerard Murphy is a smugly vain Achilles, the young Patroclus draped round his neck. Adrian Bouchet makes a handsome job of Hector, done out of his duel when killed unarmed by Achilles and his henchmen. Hector's other opponent on the battlefield, Ajax, is made brilliantly loutish by Dyfrig Morris.

Leila Crerar is a modern Cressida, and Victoria Pugh a sex-crazed Helen - both portrayed, misogynistically, as no more than sex objects, mere puppets in a vile game of war.

'Girl' to 12 March, then to Hampstead Theatre, London (020-7722 9301) 23 March to 16 April; 'Troilus and Cressida' to 5 March (0845 330 3565)

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