Arriving at the Edinburgh International Festival after a successful tour around Scotland, National Theatre of Scotland’s THROWN is a raucous and daring drama wrestling with what it means to be Scottish.
In her playwrighting debut, Nat McCleary brings together five women who have signed up to train for the wrestling event of the Highland Games. Each character has different motives for joining the team; for Chantelle (Chloe-Ann Tylor), it’s to find online fame; for Jo (Adiza Shardow), it’s to keep her oldest friend company; for Imogen (Efè Agwele), it’s a way to connect with her Scottish heritage after moving up from London; and for Helen (Maureen Carr), it’s the chance to try something new. Leading the team is Pamela (Lesley Hart) who, while determined and self-assured on the surface, is secretly struggling with her sense of self and identity.
From the outset, THROWN is fully charged in its physicality and energy. Johnny McKnight’s direction allows for the cast to seamlessly transition between 60(!) vignettes over the space of 80 minutes, keeping the pace and tensions high. Karen Tennant’s simple but effective set design gives height to the action, with the actors able to sit and climb on the sports hall climbing apparatus.
As you would hope from a play described as “uniquely Scottish”, THROWN has a healthy dose of humour – expertly delivered by this stellar cast. McCleary also delivers a number of quintessentially Scottish cultural references, including a monologue from Chantelle about what it means to be Scottish that is reminiscent of Trainspotting’s infamous opening.
While comedically a riot, there’s an emotional weight to the show as well. Though they are part of a team, wrestling is after all an individual sport; as the play progresses, each character has to face their inner opponent – asking themselves who they are, and who they want to be. With this comes a series of challenging circumstances that see the relationships strengthen and strain.
Here, McCleary does not shy away from difficult conversations. Her script unflinchingly tackles issues about nationality and class head-on, while also confronting complicated themes of racial and gender identity. At times, McCleary’s words are brutal in their honesty, and the friction between the characters is palpable. In equal measure, she effectively conveys the inner turmoil experienced by the characters as they learn more about themselves. Through Jo, in particular, we see a young queer woman who begins to embrace the half of her mixed-race heritage that has long been suppressed, in turn questioning the type of friends she wants to keep in the future.
While McCleary’s ambition should be admired, it has to be said that most of the interwoven storylines feel unfinished. Although the play ends on a hopeful, sentimental note, it leaves many issues unresolved and questions unanswered. There are also occasions when you don’t know whose side McCleary wants you to be on (if any).
The one exception to this is Helen, the glue that binds the team together. An older woman keen to rediscover herself outside her marriage, Helen goes on a journey that sees her find a new sense of freedom, independence, and inner strength. Learning from those around her, Helen becomes more assertive, finding taking control of her life and future. She is also undoubtedly both the most endearing and entertaining member of the team, with Carr’s facial expressions and physical performance a constant source of comedy gold.
Though THROWN may at times buckle under the weight of the heavy themes explored, McCleary’s debut has all the makings of a winning formula. Hilarious, hard-hitting, but also hopeful, this Scottish play will have you eager for the next round.