With Marietta Kirkbride’s Sitting with Thistle, Theatre West’s ‘Picture This’ Season at the Alma Tavern comes to an end. Though the project might not have dazzled with its consistency, my fortnightly visits to the Alma will surely be missed. In many ways, Kirkbride’s offering provides a fitting conclusion to the 11-week project. As with several past contributors, her writing is mostly on good form, and yet at times she falls prey to the clichéd narrative pitfalls which have proved hazardous throughout Theatre West’s residency.
Mark and Elysé are siblings with some serious, if predictable, issues. Granny’s dead in the living room. And the kitchen of recently deceased ‘Mad Alice’s’ remote, inaccessibly snowbound house is the arena for the demons of sibling rivalry, failed relationships, dodgy electricity and rare genetic disorders to be properly – and thankfully often wittily – thrashed out for good. Whilst they undoubtedly resort to overacting through dull segments of expository set-up, Natasha Pring and Paul Hassall are at their noxious best when given the opportunity to sink their teeth into bursts of quick-fire, venomous banter; their strong sense of rapport just about rescuing Mark and Elysé from the realms of complete unlikeability. It becomes a source of teeth-grinding annoyance that not only are both self-centred and overly sensitive, but neither, judging from Kirkbride’s frustratingly implausible final moments, do the pair have a great deal of common sense, either.
And yet Ed Viney ensures that when this production works, it does so with an impressive dash of directorial flair. Key moments of melodrama are precipitated by much more satisfyingly subtle clues: Elysé’s nonchalant concealment of a stray kitchen knife and door key whilst her brother isn’t watching creates some genuine intrigue, and Viney has collaborated well with set and lighting designers Anna Michaels and Paul Lewis to manipulate the simplicity of the Alma’s space to his advantage. In fact, the trio’s laudable attention to detail establishes Sitting with Thistle as the most technically accomplished production of the Theatre West season.
Kirkbride deserves praise not only for providing Viney and his team with the stimulus for such a fully-realised production, but also for taking a brave stab at dramatic range. Though tedium finds its way through any cracks, Sitting with Thistle amalgamates humour, poignancy, conflict and suspense into a curiously entertaining whole. One only regrets that her most original character is one we only hear about indirectly – I feel confident that if Mad Alice weren’t beginning to decompose in the next room, she’d have a thing or two to say about the fracas erupting in her kitchen.
Sitting With Thistle is playing at the Alma and Tavern Theatre until 10 December.