Velvet Evening Seance

Seen at The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen,

touring until March 4

The Belle's Stratagem,

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

until March 10

Reviewed by Mark Brown

As Scotland's third city, Aberdeen has long punched below its weight where theatre is concerned. In particular, the Granite City has no producing house (such as Dundee Rep, for example) that stages its own work on a regular basis.

In this context new company Freshly Squeezed Productions (FSP), producers of Suzie Miller's Velvet Evening Seance, is a good deed in a naughty world. Established by Aberdeen Performing Arts, with support from Creative Scotland's Producers' Project, FSP's impressive offering is, one hopes, a sign of things to come.

Directed by Ross MacKay and performed by Scott Gilmour, this monodrama taps neatly into, not one, but two inherently theatrical social phenomena (namely legal trials and seances). Set in London in 1901, the piece takes place in a courtroom, where James MacGregor, a young Scot who claims to be a spiritualist, is fighting for his life.

Accused of the fatal poisoning of his older brother, MacGregor seeks to persuade the jury of 12 men (in whose stead we, the audience, sit) of his innocence by means of autobiography and, ultimately, a seance. The play asks more of its performer than many single-actor dramas, and Gilmour rises to the challenge, taking on the roles of numerous characters (all of whom are now dead) with a compelling dexterity.

The continuously played live music by composer/pianist Jim Harbourne and deceptively simple set by designer Becky Minto (which is more hangman's scaffold than Victorian courtroom) generate an appropriately Gothic atmosphere. By the time MacGregor reaches the end of his defence, one is thoroughly absorbed in his tale. So much so, that one could almost forget that what he is presenting as an affirmation from beyond the grave is, in fact, an act of theatrical trickery.

The only trick in the Royal Lyceum's fine production of The Belle's Stratagem, Hannah Cowley's uproarious sex war comedy of 1780, is adapter/director Tony Cownie's clever and hilarious transposition of the action from London to Edinburgh. Named after George Farquhar's early 18th-century comedy The Beaux' Stratagem, Cowley's play of manners sees male assumptions and presumptions overturned on the evening of a masked ball.

Young Letitia Hardy (Angela Hardie on wonderfully knowing form) is betrothed, by family arrangement, to the dashing man-about-town Doricourt (the appropriately sparkle-toothed Angus Miller). Finding him indifferent towards her, she resolves first to repulse him and then, by means of the masquerade, make him fall in love with her.

Meanwhile, the hapless Sir George Touchwood (the cartoonishly brilliant Grant O'Rourke) seeks to shelter the innocence of his young, country bride Lady Frances (the cleverly comic Helen MacKay) from the corruptions of city gentrification. Inevitably, this makes her all the more interesting to the rakish chauvinist Courtall (the wonderfully caddish Richard Conlon). Here, too, the cover of the masquerade offers a means of humorous justice.

From the outset, when we are warned that "Sassenachs" might not appreciate his version of the play, Cownie's adaptation plays hilariously and smartly with its relocation to Scotland's capital. A running gag about a break-in at the Treasury and the masquerade costume of the upstanding Deacon Brodie is a comic treat, while Letitia's ultra-Scottish disguise enables a genuinely lovely rendition, both in voice and on the harp, of the Jacobite lament, Will Ye No Come Back Again?

The production is perfectly paced, beautifully acted across the piece (from Nicola Roy's wily prostitute Kitty to Steven McNicoll's absurd Provost Hardy), with splendid, colourful costumes playing against suitably two-dimensional, monochrome sets (by designer Neil Murray). It is another comic triumph for Cownie at the Lyceum.

For tour dates for Velvet Evening Seance, visit: