midsummer (a play with songs)

Midsummer (a play with songs)

Traverse Theatre Company

The Roundhouse Theatre

10th – 28th April 2012

Reviewed by Suzannah Bentley


I wasn’t sure what to expect from Midsummer (a play with songs). Did that mean a musical? A quick Google told me that it was a Scottish production fresh from sell-out seasons in the UK and USA. I was intrigued. After all, I love Trainspotting. So, in my mind all I could conjure was a kind of Trainspotting: The Musical, but when I settled in my seat at The Roundhouse I could tell by the two acoustic guitars set up at each side of the stage that this wasn’t going to be what I’d imagined (which is probably a good thing!).

It turns out that Midsummer is the story of two people (Bob and Helena) who are pretty much opposites. Helena is a shrewd, sophisticated lawyer and Bob is a divorced small-time crook. After an awkward one-night-stand, Bob and Helena form an unlikely duo and set about spending the bag of cash that Bob was supposed to bank for his boss. A weekend of bizarre incidents, fancy hotels, expensive meals, and even some rope bondage ensues.

When I saw Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon emerge from amongst the crowd and towards the stage, I thought they were audience members for a second. That’s how natural and unaffected their performances are. When they each pick up an acoustic guitar and sing a duet I begin to understand—a play with songs means exactly that. Midsummer is definitely not a musical. The acoustic songs that are interspersed throughout it are like little interludes that contain clues about what the characters are thinking and feeling, but are very much separate from the script itself.

Midsummer’s stage set-up looks simple, and it’s not until during the course of the play when the actors open hidden storage compartments or pick up previously unnoticed props that you realise how cleverly the whole thing has been designed. What looks like a bedroom with a double bed in the centre and a narrow raised walkway at the front morphs seamlessly into a bar, a club, a restaurant, the streets of Edinburgh, and a park. The combination of smart design and great acting conjures the sense of place beautifully.

Although Midsummer has its poignant, thought-provoking moments, this is basically a comedy. A good one. The audience barely went a few minutes without noisy laughter or clapping. The relaxed atmosphere of the production meant that everyone felt comfortable enough to laugh and even shout out occasionally without breaking any etiquette rules. The actors, too, participated in (and probably fostered) this mood by breaking character and laughing or joking when a prop malfunctioned or a line was wrong. Normally this would detract from a performance but in the case it absolutely worked. It added an element of improvisation and interaction that aided the comedy and the reality of the characters. Midsummer includes some audience interaction, but it avoids the gimmicky quality that sometimes comes with that.

Bissett and Pidgeon are tireless, physical, and completely committed to their roles. They dump water over themselves, change quickly into costumes to portray characters other than their own, run, jump, tie themselves up, simulate wild sex, play guitar, and sing for a good two hours straight without ever leaving the stage.

At times, Midsummer is a little crude and vulgar (even by my standards), but not to the point of gratuity or where it jeopardises the play’s emotional punch as a whole. Because this is a contemporary, energetic piece some vulgarity isn’t incompatible with the style. I’d probably think twice before I took my Grandmother or young kids, though. Towards the three-quarter mark of the play, the plot becomes a little stretched and there are a couple of parts where I was beginning to wonder about the run-time. However, the quality of the acting and the sense of energy and improvisation reignited my focus whenever the plot was beginning to lose it. This brief period of sluggish narrative just before the final resolution is about the only criticism I have when it comes to this play.

Midsummer (a play with songs) proves that a play doesn’t have to be weighty or overly serious to get a message across. It isn’t Chekhov, but it’s a lot of fun! Yes, it’s sad in parts and definitely thought-provoking, but mainly it’s hilarious. Midsummer is the kind of play I wish people who say they don’t like the theatre would see Every person who imagines theatre as being some posh, uptight, pretentious art form that’s only for ‘arty’ or ‘cultured’ people should experience a show as dynamic and entertaining as Midsummer. This piece challenges so many preconceptions about theatre through its vibrance and accessibility that anyone who thinks they don’t like theatre would be sure to think again and laugh their heads off doing it.

Images by Lisa Tomasetti



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