Review: The Message, Pitlochry Festival Theatre
4.0Overall Score

The Message is a breath of fresh air for both its subject and its audience. 

This piece from writer Hannah Khalil follows the perspective of something – a spirit, a genie perhaps (read by Rachael McAllister)– released, from a bottle that has washed up on the riverbank, after being trapped for centuries. 

Now freed, thanks to a woman who found the bottle – a ‘girl’ in the eyes of this ancient creature – the being explores around with excitement and newfound freedom. It slips through trees, plays with birds and fish, dives in and out of water. But before the spirit can continue its exploration, it notices the woman that freed it is still sat solemnly by the river, whispering into the bottle. She is speaking to someone far, far away – a loved one, much missed and out of contact. The love of this woman captivates the spirit so much that it decides to carry the message onward, diving into the water and setting out in the world to deliver this woman’s love and care.

The Message enraptures the listener in its description of nature. As the being escapes from its glass cage, Khalil describes a flurry of new sensations: the cool breeze, the “earthy, clay smell” of recent rain, the glory of touching the water that had been sealed off from the being for so long. Delicate passages of assonance accurately sketch the wildlife, as the spirit is “chased by lampreys” and “dancing with salmon”. The words paint a vivid and dynamic world with all the senses, and easily transports the audience along with the spirit.

McAllister’s reading also strengthens the work as she conveys joy and freedom in abundance; we feel movement in her voice as the being harries about in frenetic fashion, inhaling the river that is teeming with life. Everything in this passage is fresh, organic, and important.

The video accompaniment to The Message is also effective. Shots of the River Tay and Tayside filmed during lockdown are presented in short, quick sequences, giving the impression of excitement and constant, frenzied movement, mirroring the tone from the being. It is also edited (by Nick Trueman) in a way that is not too busy or distracting, instead working in harmony with the text to create an immersive experience. Credit to both Trueman and director, Elizabeth Newman, for having this control over the piece. 

There’s also a strong sense of storytelling in the video as it slows down to become more purposeful and clear when the spirit falls into the mission of helping the woman who emancipated her. Long, languid shots of the river establish the being’s upcoming journey.

The story feels a little less smooth in the text, as the spirit switches from the eagerness for freedom, to choosing to help the woman rather abruptly – but the passage describing the spirit filling with the woman’s love is evocative and hopeful. It makes up for any narrative issues by leaving us with a much-needed message of connection, kindness, and love. 

The Message is streaming now on Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s YouTube channel.