Royal Exchange theatre, Manchester
David Grieg’s rowdy, informal yarn makes a pleasingly oddball antidote to the classic Christmas show
Devils may not seem very festive but David Greig’s tale of midwinter magic is an inspired bit of Christmas programming, creating the feeling of being gathered cosily around the fire. Through story and song, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart transports us to a snow-blanketed Scottish border town, weaving a good old-fashioned yarn.
Prudencia is a scholar of folklore, specialising in the topography of the underworld. During a conference, she becomes trapped in her own idea of hell, stranded in the snow and surrounded by fashionably post-poststructuralist colleagues. As if things couldn’t get any worse, there’s karaoke. Escaping this nightmare, Prudencia runs out into the snowy night, where she encounters a devilishly friendly B&B owner.
Greig’s play, co-created with director Wils Wilson, was designed for pubs rather than theatres. The storytelling at its heart is informal, intimate and enjoyably rowdy. In Debbie Hannan’s exuberant production, it transposes well on to the Royal Exchange’s in-the-round stage, drawing the audience in like a circle of revellers congregating to hear a ghost story.
The simply but wittily told first half whips along, with the exception of a tiresome tangent featuring a drunken hen do. But it’s in the captivatingly strange second act that this production comes into its own. Max Johns’ previously sparse set is transformed, with pub carpets removed to reveal Ellie Foreman-Peck’s illustrations of the underworld. As Prudencia languishes in this hell, the stage slowly turns, while glowing rods of light form the bars of her shimmering cage.
As Prudencia, Joanne Thomson unravels beautifully, her stiff limbs slowly loosening as her clothes become dishevelled. It’s easy to believe she’s spent millennia here, only discovering the messy value of life through immortality. She has an ideal match in Paul Tinto’s devil, a stressed manager of the underworld who finally descends with her into poetic passion.
Threaded through with Michael John McCarthy’s folk compositions, this is a wickedly joyous mix of music, revelry and enchantment. As Hannan and their team prove, the devil really does have the best tunes.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is at the Royal Exchange theatre, Manchester, until 15 January.