Harpy by Philip Meeks @ Underbelly Cowgate

Performed by Su Pollard
Written by Philip Meeks
Directed by Hannah Chissick
Produced by Suzanna Rosenthal of Something for the Weekend
At Underbelly Cowgate, White Belly Theatre, 1-26 August 2018

Harpy

Su Pollard is Birdie, the infamous hag of her little village. She sits in her house on the hill, perched like a harpy atop her hoard, and waits for the return of the one thing she ever let slip away – the most important thing in her pitiful, lonely life. Throughout the course of this hour-long one-woman show, we watch her converse with her fish, her social worker, her neighbours (through the intervening walls), the local busybody (and almost-friend), and assorted other characters from Birdie’s past and present.

The play was written for Hi-de-Hi! star Pollard, and she brings warmth and complexity to her eccentric character, exhibiting in turns a shrewd Marple-like observant of human nature, and a fragile, vulnerable lost soul. Deftly handling both comedy and aching pathos, she helps her audience forge a deep and personal understanding of this misunderstood old lady. However, the sudden changes to the play’s various other characters are often confusing and flow-breaking, as Pollard does not always draw enough of a distinction between characters to make it clear who is talking, especially when she is playing both parts of a two-person dialogue. At such times, the play could benefit from another actor – Pollard may be a national treasure and an excellent Birdie, but as an actor she does not quite have the versatility to carry all Harpy’s characters on her own.

The play’s first act suffers somewhat from lack of direction; meandering anecdotes, vague foreshadowy references, and the aforementioned disorienting character changes mean that the story feels cluttered, like the house where it takes place. I found myself becoming restless and checking my watch, worried that I too would be sucked into Birdie’s house and lost amongst its hodgepodge of debris, like the Jehovah’s Witness in one of Birdie’s stories. However, with the introduction of a young woman named Mattie Cleeves (spelling?), the story finally begins to gain momentum, and its various frayed threads come together to weave a compelling tapestry – by the final act, I was absolutely hooked and caught up in the story unfolding in front of me. The central element of that story – Birdie’s compulsive hoarding – is much more interesting as soon as it is hinted that there may be a reason for it locked in her tragic life history, and the play could benefit from setting up this conceit much earlier. As it is, it risks jettisoning its audience’s attention (and consciousness) before this intrigue can be properly established.

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One thought on “Harpy by Philip Meeks @ Underbelly Cowgate

  1. Pingback: Su Online | The Official Su Pollard Website » Theatre Box: Harpy Review at Underbelly, Edinburgh

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