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The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at the Royal Exchange Theatre

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
Iím a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83 My debut poetry pamphlet is available at wildpressedbooks.com/david-keyworth.html
Event: -
Sympathy for the devil
On a dark December night of cold rain, the prospect of a ballad by a crackling fire was very enticing. This is what is on offer at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre this Christmas, except that the flames are metaphorical.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, David Greig, Joanne Thomson, Michael John McCarthy, Malin Lewis, Scottish folk songs, Amelia Isaac-Jones
Oliver Wellington, Lawrence Hodgson- Mullings, Amelia Isaac Jones. C-Paul Tinto (Devil) image Johan Persson.


Prudencia Hart (Joanne Thomson) is a 28-year-old postgraduate student at the Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies, doing a PhD on the 'Topography of Hell in Scottish Folk Ballads'. She wears glasses, a knitted-pattern pullover and a long coat and is mocked as a 'librarian' by her 'rock star' colleague Colin Syme (Oliver Wellington).

They are both speakers at a conference in Kelso titled 'Border Ballads - neither border of ballad'. Colin has the academics swooning whereas Prudencia's talk sends them to sleep.

Things go from bad to worse for her when a blizzard cuts off the roads and the folk session at the Cobbles Inn morphs into a karaoke night. Prudencia finds herself encircled by a hen party, hell-bent on fun. Deliverance is promised by bookish Nick who offers to guide her towards a welcoming house. But his name and promise of a "warm fire waiting for you" are an ominous hint that the salvation he offers will not be of the heavenly kind.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, David Greig, Joanne Thomson, Michael John McCarthy, Malin Lewis, Scottish folk songs, Amelia Isaac-Jones
Joanne Thomson (Prudencia) & Paul Tinto (Devil) - image Johan Persson


The second half of the evening was, for me, the more satisfying part of David Greig's new drama (co-created with Wils Wilson). The wit, live music and rhyming couplets of the first half are enjoyable. But the other-worldly setting, after the interval, enables Prudencia's character to move beyond caricature to reveal more pathos and inner longing.

There are echoes of the fairy-tale-for-grownups approach of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, which the Royal Exchange produced as its Christmas show six years ago.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is not a musical but rather a play with music, courtesy of Malin Lewis and Michael John McCarthy. The tunes helped maintain the momentum during the scenes which threatened to snag. The ensemble musicians also acted as a Greek Chorus - filling in the gaps between dialogue.

Theatre, Manchester, Royal Exchange Theatre, David Greig, Joanne Thomson, Michael John McCarthy, Malin Lewis, Scottish folk songs, Amelia Isaac-Jones
Paul Tinto (Devil & ensemble) plus cast - image Johan Persson


They were some genuine musical high points. In particular, Amelia Isaac-Jones' bewitching performance of a Robert Burns inspired ballad "Till a' the seas gang dry. That's when he'll come back to I."

Overall I'm not sure what David Greigs' highly entertaining play, directed by Debbie Hannan, is about, apart from an uptight academic learning to let her hair down and the danger of becoming trapped in a rigid persona and too absorbed in an esoteric subject.

Despite the faithful observation of anti-COVID masks and social distancing, dancing in the aisles did threaten to break out as the cast took their bows. Let's hope that, like Prudencia Hart, we will finally re-discover some devil-may-care enjoyment as the weather gradually warms and the pandemic, God willing, burns itself out.

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Why? Not only the devil has the best tunes in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at the Royal Exchange Theatre
When: 4 December 2021 Ė 15 January 2022
Phone: 0161 833 9833
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre St Annís Square Manchester M2 7DH
Cost: Standard Tickets £10 - £32. Concessions available. Limited number of £7 tickets available for Under 30s.
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