The National Theatre of Scotland and Tron Theatre take on Theatre of the Absurd in Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths, the first full-length play by Martin McCormick. It is directed by Andy Arnold and presented as part of Mayfesto, whose theme this year is “exploring the brutal complexities of family life.”
Ma and Pa, an aging couple who clearly have some unresolved trauma in their past, hide away in their high rise flat, the windows taped over to shut out the world. Ma never goes out, while Pa makes a weekly trip to the shops for supplies. They spend their time bickering, making audacious claims of questionable veracity and telling absurd stories. It is on one of Pa’s trips outside that he finds and seemingly rescues Neil, a mysterious young woman with lovely teeth, whom he brings back to the flat to Ma’s consternation. Things soon take a sinister turn for Neil, trapped in an awkward situation, forced to participate in their talent show and to show off her teeth.
The play is very much in keeping with the absurdist genre. It particularly brings to mind the works of Samuel Beckett in its focus on characters at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum who exist outside society, trapped in a meaningless life and trying to keep their spirits up despite their miserable situation. It might also be compared to the plays of Harold Pinter, with its characters existing in an enclosed space, feeling menaced by some unexplained danger.
Karen Dunbar and Gerry Mulgrew are hilarious as Ma and Pa, and enrapture the audience in their respective monologues about chickens and snakes. Nalini Chetty is suitably intimidated and uncomfortable as Neil.
The set, designed by Charlotte Lane, is surreal: everything is the colour of dried mud and a variety of objects from kitchen utensils to wellington boots cling to the walls and ceiling, adding greatly to the overall strangeness.
Like many pieces of its genre, Ma, Pa and the Little Mouths makes it challenging to find meaning in an unfathomable situation. Challenges aside, the gallows humour is delivered with great success by the brilliant cast, and many of the lines are well crafted to maximise hilarity, keeping the audience laughing throughout.