In the past, the Christmas slot at the Royal Exchange Theatre has been reserved for big musical productions like The Producers, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, and Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods. So it seems a little strange that a quaint, folk musical is chosen for such a prestigious slot this winter.
However, if you bear in mind that the theatre is running at a reduced capacity, in line with Covid guidelines, perhaps it’s fitting that audiences are eased back into live performances with David Greig‘s relatively unknown ‘fairy-tale of sorts’, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. But it’s a title that sounds more than a little pretentious, which honestly initially put me off watching it.
Prudencia Hart (Joanne Thomson) is a lover of traditional folk ballads and a scholar, with her PhD specialising in the topography of Hell. Having delivered a speech at a linguistics conference in rural Scotland, her car is snowed in and she’s stranded in the middle of nowhere on the winter solstice. Together with fellow lecturer Colin Syme (Oliver Wellington), they seek refuge in a local pub and try to book a B&B.
In this pub, Prudencia faces her version of Hell, with dodgy karaoke, a drunken cackling hen party and flaming sambucas. Making a swift exit, she attempts to travel to the B&B alone, where she encounters the Devil (Paul Tinto) and ends up being imprisoned in actual Hell.
At the heart of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is an exquisite musical score, composed and arranged by Michael John McCarthy. As you enter the theatre, the actor-musicians play the fiddle, an acoustic guitar, a cello and a double bass, as they treat the audience to traditional folk ballads, before adding a contemporary twist. With leaves and flowers stuck into straw boater hats, it instantly feels like you’ve walked into a small country festival, and it’s difficult not to be swept up in the music’s foot-stomping charm.
As Prudencia enters Hell in the second act, this pastoral folk music gives way to more ethereal, haunting musical compositions, played from the theatre’s gallery by the supremely talented Malin Lewis. I was lucky enough to be sat near Lewis so was able to see the incredible array of instruments that are used to bring Hell to life, including the Finnish bagpipes.
Likewise, the stage design changes effectively from homely rugs and quaint model buildings in the first act, to occult drawings in the second half of the play. Creating a circle of Hell, the stage is enclosed with vertical rods of neon light, which serve as a prison from which Prudencia Hart has to try and escape.
The play’s dialogue also follows this pattern of contrasts. David Greig‘s play is initially performed in poetic verse with an elaborate rhyme scheme. Whereas in Hell, the script follows a more prosaic structure, before returning to verse at the end. It’s undeniably clever writing, but sadly, there’s a section of the play that draws attention to this fact. As two characters quip about the changing narrative structure, the play becomes unbelievably self-indulgent. It’s almost as if the playwright is unashamedly telling the audience “look how clever I am!”. Nudge nudge, wink, wink.
The audience are intelligent enough to appreciate the cleverness of Greig’s writing without having it so crassly and blatantly pointed out to them. Give us some credit!
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only occasion where Greig’s writing is overly self-gratifying. There are extended sections where the play gets bogged down discussing the history and technicalities of folk ballads. It’s heavy going and feels almost like a lecture at times, entirely inaccessible and boring, unless you are a lover of this genre of music. There’s a running joke about border ballads being “neither border, nor ballad”, which went totally over my head.
The cast do their best with Greig’s dense script, with Oliver Wellington bringing much needed light comedic relief as the show-stealing, enigmatic Dr Colin Syme, who prefers Kylie Minogue to folk ballads.
Although Joanne Thomson delivers a solid performance as Prudencia Hart, rendering her character’s development from a prudish, dull, uptight nerd who is obsessed about folk ballads to someone who eventually learns to let her hair down. However, this revelation came so late on, I never warmed to her character.
Paul Tinto is infinitely more seductively charming as the Devil, yet also brilliantly captures the predatory side of the Prince of Darkness. Spending an eternity with Prudencia as his captive, the romantic relationship that builds between the two sadly never feels authentic. It seems more like Stockholm syndrome. Incidentally, a sloppy use of props in these ‘romantic’ scenes between Prudencia and the Devil gives us the good news that in nearly 2000 years time, we will still have Hula Hoops!
When the word ‘strange’ is in the title of a play, it should come as no surprise that it is going to be weird. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is totally bonkers at times, but also quite heavy going at other times. It is a strange concoction of quirky charm, haunting eeriness, and things that make no sense.
This play is so utterly strange, it left me completely confused and ambivalent about how I feel towards it. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it. There were parts I liked, and there were parts that I found boring. I didn’t love the characters, but I didn’t dislike them either. It was all very wishy washy and would most certainly benefit from a second viewing.
The music was wonderful though.