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The Breathing House

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow
Three Stars

A tale of two cities is at the heart of Peter Arnott’s Edinburgh-set Victorian gothic, revived here by Mark Thomson in his production performed by the RCS’s final year BA Acting students. Like Twin Peaks scripted by Robert Louis Stevenson, Arnott recognises Auld Reekie as a Jekyll and Hyde city, with the Old Town’s lower depths shielding a dark underbelly from those occupying its seemingly respectable facade.

It is the seamier side that appeals to Gilbert, who farms his servant mistress Agnes out to a place of ill repute to protect his reputation while seeking cheap thrills wherever he can. Cloon is a more liberal-minded fetishist, taking pictures of working women living in the gutter and falling for his own servant Hannah, who has secrets of her own.

From this erupts a plague of false piety and hypocrisy in the face of class division, sexual abuse and self-destructive pleasure-seeking. Parallels with modern day Edinburgh and any other city where money talks are plain to see.

Thomson weaves all this into a slow-burning concoction that moves its cast between scenes by way of screens done out like photographic slides that slowly but surely give the big picture of moral bankruptcy. This is seen best in Michael Monroe’s portrayal of Gilbert as the sort of entitled toff Edinburgh New Town was built for. Paul Gorman’s Cloon is equally recognisable.

It is the women, however, who suffer most, be it Leah Byrne’s brutalised Agnes, Cloon’s naive wife Elizabeth, played by Jennifer Hartland, or Sorcha Kennedy’s god-fearing Rachel. But the play’s conscience comes from Rebecca Wilkie’s moving performance as Hannah, who Wilkie gives a sense of quiet strength and gravitas beyond her hardships. As Hannah eventually finds redemption of sorts, there is hope, it seems, beyond the degradations a socially divided world brings with it.

The Herald, October 31st 2018 



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