At Christmas the Royal Exchange usually stages a classic musical to bring us some festive cheer with Sweet Charity, Guys and Dolls and Gypsy being recent successful offerings. It is therefore something of a radical departure this year to find the new team of Artistic Directors (Bryony Shanahan and Roy Weise), plumping for a play based around Scottish folk ballads to entice theatregoers away from pantomime, hearth and home. As I made my way to my favourite theatre, braving monsoon conditions, drunken office parties and the questionable attractions of the Manchester markets, I was intrigued by this quirky choice. I left three hours later, exhilarated, charmed and slightly confused by this uneven but undeniably captivating piece of theatre.
We are presented with the eponymous Prudencia Hart (Joanne Thomson), a bookish and insular academic, writing her PhD thesis on ‘The Topography of Hell’, trapped at midwinter academic conference following heavy snowfall. She leaves the warmth and comfort of the local pub and meets the mysterious Nick (Paul Tinto) on the road, beginning a tale of self-discovery and a true understanding of what Hell actually means.
These ostensibly dark themes are lightened by writer David Greig, weaving his tale using blank verse and absurdist comedy which although uncomfortable to watch at first, quickly win the audience’s trust and laughter ensues. Hart’s version of Hell is a hen party (the only truly grating scene), a council estate and an AirBnB decorated in 1970’s chic, taking the theme of hell as peculiarly personal and bleakly funny. Thomson engages well as the curious and increasingly assertive Prudencia but it is Tinto as the bearded, saturnine Nick who draws the attention. Prowling the stage bare chested and sporting a floor length red coat, he exhudes menace and sexual power in equal measure, the air crackles and the pace of the piece noticeably drops when Thomson and Tinto are offstage. The ensemble (Lawrence Hodgson – Mullings, Amelia Isaac Jones, Malin Lewis, Oliver Wellington) take a great variety of roles over the course of the evening, filling Hart’s nightmares with vivid grotesques, Bruegel and Dante mixed with a hangover in a Wetherspoons all set to a disco karaoke beat.
The set design by Max Johns comprises the familiar Royal Exchange trope of a revolving stage and simple fluorescent lighting and though this is effective, a more sumptuous warmer and claustrophobic backdrop would have better suited the material rather than this simplistic option. The music was central to the enjoyment of the piece, with Malin Lewis taking the lead in incorporating traditional Scottish instrumentation from the outset, which combined with rap and pop mixed a heady brew.
If this all sounds strange, indulgent and faintly ridiculous, that is because it is. Somehow though, the combination of Faust and Milton with a sprinkling of Kylie combines to make a funny and heartwarming show. The Royal Exchange are pushing the boundaries of what is Christmas fayre with this production, judging by the half full audience at press night they may struggle to entice the Manchester audiences during the ongoing pandemic. However, they should be applauded for their bravery and fortitude in not succumbing to commercial pressure and maintaining the tradition of artistic exploration for which this theatre is renowned.
It is impossible to pigeonhole ‘Prudencia Hart’, but if you like your entertainment slightly off kilter then I would recommend a trip to Hell in St Annes Square this festive season for a musical, ghostly tale with a devilish twist. Playing until 15th January https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/whats-on-and-tickets/the-strange-undoing-of-prudencia-hart
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 8th December 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★