In a claustrophobic brick alley in Edinburgh, three versions of Jenny at different ages talk about her husband Tommy McLeish, contrasting the dark-eyed unruly ten year old she first met with the dead-eyed vegan invalid with whom she shares her old age. Seanmhair (“grandmother” in the Gaelic), by Cardiff theatre company The Other Room, is named for Jenny’s grandmother who comes to her aid when her fascination with Tommy results in trouble. It was written by Hywel John, whose previous plays include Pieces and Rose, and directed by Kate Wasserberg.
The narrative is non-linear, with the story of Jenny and Tommy meeting at age ten woven together with Jenny’s laments about her husband’s current helpless state, and eventually with Seanmhair’s own story as the play reaches its climax. It does require some focus to keep the different strands straight as they become more messily intertwined, especially as they are drawn together through mystical means that draw on somewhat stereotypical associations between Scotland and the supernatural. Perhaps this association explains why the Welsh writer chose Scotland as a setting (that, or the frequent mentions of Edinburgh locations are craftily designed to appeal to fringe-goers by anchoring the story with street names everyone will recognise). And perhaps the all-too-common view that Gaelic belongs to a mythical past explains why John chose to give the play a Gaelic title, despite containing no further traces of Gaelic and no engagement with Gaelic as a living language and culture.
Jo Freer, Sian Howard, and Molly Vevers all play Jenny, as well as the other characters appearing in the story – Jenny’s parents, nanny and uncle, Seanmhair, Tommy and his mother. As a cast they work well together, hitting the simultaneous lines and divided sentences with a polished precision. Jo Freer brings an aggressive physical presence to her portrayal of the younger Tommy.
It is the language that makes Seanmhair the potent piece of storytelling that it is. The pacing is swift and rhythmic, with the actors chanting repeating words and phrases in unison, enhancing the poetic quality of the lines. Sound and lighting effects add to the enthralling intensity of the piece, punctuating shifts in the narrative, and giving the scene an unearthly menacing quality when the play calls for it.
Seanmhair is a hauntingly lyrical tale about love, fate, violence, and growing up, told by a captivating, energetic, and capable cast.