Review: In Skagway, Arcola Theatre ✭✭✭

Entering the Arcola’s smaller studio space, the audience are confronted with the interior of a rustic wooden cabin. Natasha Piper’s beautifully simple design immediately evokes the hardships and meagre comforts of the American wilderness – a pair of socks drying, an upturned crate for a seat, a wooden trunk and, in the centre of the stage, the stove. Beyond that the stage is almost bare; this is not a world of extravagance.

The inhabitants of this cabin are a trio of women: Frankie, the famous actress whose star has faded; Mae, her brightly cheerful companion, and T-Belle, Mae’s practical and frustrated daughter. They are all trapped – geographically in the desolate town of Skagway unless they can find the money for passage out of there; emotionally, by the set of debts, duties and lies they have built around them over the preceding decades; and, in the case of Frankie, physically in the shell of her stroke-destroyed body.

The women, and their desperate struggles for freedom, are movingly portrayed with clarity and truth by Angeline Ball, Geraldine Allen and Kathy Rose O’Brien. Disappointingly, however, for a play about women written by a female playwright, they seem to be given very little power. Each of them is hurt, conned or broken by the unseen men of the piece. Even their deliverance at the end is revealed not to have been earned or taken by them as T-Belle triumphantly believes, but rather handed to them grudgingly by the self-styled impresario of the town.

The actors are also hampered by a script which has replaced actual events with a succession of lyrical narrative monologues. Nothing much happens on stage, and since the characters rarely seem to actually talk to each other, we are also deprived of any interactions to supplement the inaction of the piece. We are left with a series of reported stories and re-enacted memories, which though perhaps appropriate for these women living in the shadow of past theatrical triumphs, is one layer of performance too many to be dramatically satisfying for its current audience.

*** (3 stars)
Runs until 1st March
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