as part of STaG’s New Works, Cottiers Theatre (18th February)

Tuesday the 18th of February saw the opening night of STaG’s annual New Works festival at Cottiers Theatre in showbiz style with Ross Wylie’s, Frank and Catriona Mcleod’s music-hall tale, Ingénue.

As the audience enters, Anna Nodward-Siegel is already in place as Wylie’s piano accompanist, playing a selection of swing’s most covered numbers, an apt introduction for the singer who cannot finish writing his love song.

Wylie is a charming performer, and in taking on a role of his own writing, this doesn’t change. The story of fleeting fame with manipulative managers, love, affairs and drink is hardly new, but Frank’s voice is given an Irish clarity and, well, frankness. This lets us behind the bravado and into the life of the industry-manufactured Frank O’Kane. The jokes are funny, sad, and they keep up through downward spiral of the story with perfect timing. Even the few issues with lines add to the truthfulness of the character and his portrayal.

It’s difficult to tell quite when or where Frank is meant to be, or whether that’s consistent from beginning to end, but without thinking about it too much, it’s easy to be lost in the mix of candidness and showmanship. A talent he proves in a closing song, breaking the fourth wall, ‘Just to show you I can actually sing.’ (He can).

After the interval, the backdrop is drawn back to reveal the grand church windows of the Cottiers. Tutus and dusty chairs scatter the stage. Backstage in a Victorian London music hall, we are introduced to a pageant of painted actress Nel; sweet and bubbly Cass; choreographer Mildred; and the titular ingénue, Polly.

As clever an introduction as this is, the characters continue stark and archetypal. It’s a penny dreadful tale of music-hall girls who want to be real actresses, a manager who plucks pretty young things off streets, and all the while Jack the Ripper terrorises the East End. Although there’s a lot of scope for melodrama, this is seized upon perhaps a little too eagerly at the expense of plot. The ripper is mentioned, and that is that. Dreams are quickly quashed. It’s a story of false starts and, although it read well as a sensational tale, it plays out like a script.

Nonetheless the cast are talented, and the design stylish. Cait Lennox and Polly Burn (Cass and Mildred) play their pantomimic parts well, while Max Chase is as sleazy as could be hoped. For a title character, Polly is curiously pathetic, but actress Sarah Gibbon transforms from quietly watchful to stricken brilliantly. The main story is Nel’s, reserved for and played by writer Mcleod. While her music-hall performances to the audience are fantastic, Nel seems to have been written for sassy comebacks and lewd remarks, with a bit of tragic backstory added for range. Again, it’s a case of melodrama not finding its proper expression on a stage which does not push beyond the realms of naturalism, resulting in a discordance of expectation and result. Although there is potential and spectacle, the impressive beginning and ending don’t quite hold up the struggling plot.

[Caitlin MacColl]

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