ROYAL LYCEUM, Grindlay Street
* * *
Their verbal sparring parries along nicely as McNicoll’s laconic chauffeur Matti and Smith’s Jekyll and Hyde-like Mrs Puntila vie for the higher moral ground. They are the highlight of this unfocused, yet curiously absorbing production based on one of Bertolt Brecht’s lesser performed plays - there’s usually a reason for that.
The Mr Puntila of the original has had a gender change and been relocated to Scotland in Denise Mina’s wordy adaptation.
Mrs Puntila, a wealthy land owner, is warm and generous when under the influence of alcohol. When sober, she is a surly, grasping monster. Switching from one persona to the other, Puntila leaves a trail of shattered working class lives in her wake, having promised them the world while drunk, only to renege on her offers the morning after.
Mrs Puntila is planning the engagement of her daughter Eva, a performance by Joanne McGuinness that truly needs to be seen to be believed, but soon the cracks in her scheming begin to appear in her self-serving plot.
In the first of the title roles, Smith is eminently watchable, flitting between soused and sober with an understated ease communicated as much through her eyes - the steely glare versus the gentle gaze - and tone of voice rather than any overt physicality.
In reply, McNicoll prowls the stage, dispensing wisdom, offering advice and, occasionally, delivering the odd killer comic aside. His observation that Eva is having what is akin to the ‘erotic awakening of Elmer Fudd’, brings gasps of laughter.
In true Brechtian-style, at points the house-lights raise and the cast speak directly to the audience. It works well when the leads do it but is contrived when the chorus, a mixter-maxter collection of characters, attempt to engage in social comment.
As political satire goes, Mina’s script is a clumsy metaphor for the perceived ‘duality of the rich and powerful.’ This, along with Tom Piper’s ramshackle set, which is devoid of any consideration of auditorium sight-lines, and Murat Daltaban’s haphazard direction conspire to create a hot mess of a show that often engages for the wrong reasons.
Run ends 21 March