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Calum Beaton & Pab Roberts in 'Desk Job' by Paul Bishop *** - 2015: The Lower Depths

Date Published: 23 May 2015

There could hardly be a more apt setting for this Russian classic from Maxim Gorky set in early 20th century Tsarist Russia than inside the cold disused depot with its flaky painted ceilings, exposed pipework and bare brick walls that is the The Secret Courtyard’s Peely Theatre. The harsh metallic sound that comes with the opening and closing of its floor to ceiling folding doors give an eerie reminder of train carriages that were used to hold and transport folk in base conditions and adds to the atmosphere of despair. The general decrepitude of the space chimes perfectly with the play’s theme of group of people at very bottom of society sheltering together with mustered dignity.

A woman, a babushka before her time, sits silently along from a muffled man who sits scraping metal. Slowly shapes start emerging from the shadows and it becomes clear that this is the hideous living area for a motley group of impoverished human beings as each character comes into dark relief. We are all in various stages of dying from the outset, but this play is a stark reminder of that fact. Each is trying to survive in the best way they know whether it is the dying woman catching her next breath; the failed actor trying to recall his best lines or the landlady trying to make sure the sweeping rota is adhered.

A stranger appears in the form of Luka, played with calm benignity by Nick Cheales, who acts as a sage, giving kind and practical counsel. His words may not always be heeded but his presence is a catalyst for changes and a trigger to loosening others’ perspectives allowing individual philosophies to be expounded as to what counts as truth. Amid this mish- mash of humanity we see kindness and gentleness alongside death, cunning and compromise well played out by the cast but with particular mention to Ian Sexon as Satine and Pepel, Robert Williamson as the hard headed Kostoloff and Kirsten Maguire as the calculating Vassilisa.

Andy Corelli does an admirable job of directing the 13 characters played by the 8 actors in this unconventional theatrical space though the sight lines are at times poor when action takes place in line with the back row of the audience. Michael Daviot brings a rich voice and string presence to his louche effete and fallen characters, Baron and Actor, though the two merged somewhat making it difficult to differentiate. Played with some rising song and discreet background music, this piece of social realism that gives voice to people who can sink no further is another example of ambitious work from Siege Perilous.

This adaptation is based on the early 20th century translation from the original Russian by Laurence Irving and the production is part of this year’s Hidden Door Arts Festival.

Irene Brown
Edinburgh Guide

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