Entering the thrust stage setup, the audience at The Hub are suddenly guests at an outdoor wedding. A band plays quiet pop-rock music and a banquet table is set with balloons, wine bottles and flowers. The atmosphere is convivial and we anticipate a play of warmth and happiness. And although this becomes true, after David Greig‘s Midsummer bangs into life we are also immersed in chaos, violence, dancing and music.
Originally performed at the Traverse ten years ago, Midsummer is a play with songs charting the magnetic relationship between two characters who are lost in life – Helena and Bob. However, this revival for the Edinburgh International Festival has been altered to include a crucial new element. The story of the outcast lovers is now narrated by older versions of themselves, looking back and disagreeing about the details of their early encounters. The word “narrated” doesn’t really do their involvement justice, though. Eileen Nicholas (older Helena) and Benny Young (older Bob) are almost as physically interwoven into events as their younger counterparts as they power around the theatre, rearranging the staging, singing and diving onto the stage to join the band at key moments.
Playing the main characters at the birth of their relationship, Sarah Higgins and Henry Pettigrew are triumphant. They both exude energy and affability and perfectly embody two characters who are terribly flawed in many ways but who we warm to and root for nonetheless. Helena seems to be a functioning alcoholic who repeatedly disappoints her family and who is already in a damaging relationship, whereas Bob, just turned 35, has no drive in life, a teenage son he barely sees and a “job” earning money by running shady errands for his gangster neighbour. Helena and Bob’s lives collide in a bar one night and intertwine around one another through one mad situation after another.
The comedy is spot-on, through witty dialogue, spiky punchlines, and even childlike physical shenanigans that leave the two lead actors dripping with sweat. Songs also form part of the storytelling and Gordon McIntyre’s (of band Ballboy) music is funny, touching and never cheesy. The pace is perfect – racing along with life for the most part, but calming for some intimate moments that allow the audience to connect further with the characters and relate to the themes at play – happiness, failure, regret and possibility.
Midsummer is a celebration not only of love, but of the city of Edinburgh itself, littered with reference to familiar spots and jokes that locals can laugh knowingly with. It invites us to reflect on our own experiences and at its centre explores an poignant dichotomy: the futile passing of time that amplifies the need to treasure the present. This is a theatrical highlight of the summer.