In lieu of recent political events, a play focusing on the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish referendum might feel slightly dated. Indeed Better Together, the new family drama from David Weir, could be accused of preaching a song we have heard too many times, and that we, in London, are never going to agree with. Oh how wrong you’d be. Better Together is a far smarter play than you’d give it credit for, sidelining any politics for the effects it has on crumbling family dynamics.
Better Together follows the trials of the Finlays in Burntisland, Fife. Arlene (Eleanor Morton) has just turned eighteen and she’s using her own independence to leave a country denied theirs. Dad Adam (Rikki Chamberlain) voted no, and thus their relationship has been skewed ever since. Included in the mess are put-upon mother Margaret (Kate Russell-Smith) and sister Shona (Rosalind McAndrew), whose baby’s daddy is in prison.
Better Together scores some convincing and intelligently written dynamics from Weir. Where many other productions would struggle to accurately represent these tensions, here our characters are relatable and poignant. There’s also some very good craft when it comes to the world behind this community – Weir makes it seem as though there are hundreds of stories that could come out of Burntisland, and he just chose to tell this one. We hear so much about the residents, crime rate, economy and relations that it goes beyond painting a picture. The political landscape is just that – merely a backdrop to proceedings. You feel its weight though, as though Burntisland is about to break apart as much as the Finlays are.
That said, the family drama is a well-trodden path by now, and the story doesn’t go out of its way enough to surprise us as much as it could, or even should. The play’s big reveal is sadly clear as day from the word go, which means proceeding events play out as irony, despite Weir’s best intentions to sidestep us at times. Better Together also plays the frustrating card of not resolving characters how we’d like. Yes, this is certainly more realistic, but we grow to enjoy these people over the 90 minutes and want to see them get some satisfaction.
Every cast member plays a blinder, particularly Chamberlain who balances the temper and love of Adam perfectly. He’s one of the most convincing stage fathers that I’ve seen in recent memory. Morton is a worthy foil, youthfully hammering on about Scotland’s political landscape until she lands the right side of tedious. It’s a testament to both actors that we’re rooting for each of them at the play’s end. McAndrew gets some of the best lines – her disastrous romantic past is a very funny running gag – but she sensitively brings some pathos to the brash Shona, and is probably the character that actively changes the most throughout. Russell-Smith is limited by Margaret’s involvement in the script (she’s mostly a bystander), but brings so much warmth to the proceedings that she’s easily the most likeable; her final shattering words to Adam are also expertly played.
Better Together is a play where the politics are mostly familial, and the characters are very relatable. By the end we’re delivered a compelling and reasonable argument, hearing both sides equally, and appealing to us on an emotional scale. The story is lacking in places, and there are few instances where you aren’t pre-empting events about to transpire, but this is well worth the admission for the quality of the argument alone. There’s not a soapbox in sight.
Better Together is playing the Jack Studio Theatre until 28 May. For more information and tickets, see the Jack Studio Theatre website. Photo: Tim Stubbs Hughes