“A Split Decision”
Keir McAllister Assembly Rooms 1330 until 24th August Reviewed 12th August £10 4 stars
Scotland is a broken barfly who “lies in his cold Calvinistic bathtub…fully dressed in his Sunday best”. England is a rampaging matron in blue and red, all bosomly and withering emasculation; more Iron Lady or Victoria Regina than than Britannia or Boudica. They’re here today for a spot of advice – should they break up, or are they better together?
Like others, I had misgivings when I heard that Keir McAllister’s new play dealing with the upcoming Scottish referendum would rely on the tired divorce metaphor. It’s been done well, (as with Keir’s inspiration, Stanley Odd’s Marriage Guidance); but it can seem lazy, treads into some irrelevant gender territory, and runs the risk of a facile treatment.
A Split Decision, however, employs some strongly cut imagery to make this analogy work. Although we hover close to caricature at times, I do feel that McAllister has managed to (just about) walk the fine line between simplicity and sophistication well. Moreover, he’s done an outstanding job in negotiating the other obvious tension in the room – there’s an equal hearing given to both camps of the debate.
Paul Sneddon as Scotland receives most to do and does it well, belying both his wealth of comedic experience (as Vlad McTavish) but also a surprising stage awareness. Jojo Sutherland as England has a slightly overdone part and does well to produce a Lady Macbeth rather than a nagging wife. I can’t see this as palatable with genders reversed, and the elements of powerplay can be slightly concerning and distracting.
Gareth Waugh, as the mediator or counsellor, was very flat in the beginning but began to come into his own towards the end. His performance seemed to follow the passions of his character arc; perhaps as a comedian he’s more used to living on the extremes.
McAllister’s dialogue can be both witty and surprisingly poetic; Scotland’s whinging sounds like a “broken accordion played by the ghost of someone who’s never played the accordion”. The play is set in rhyming couplets, although if there’s a consistent metre or syllable count I couldn’t discern it. One occasionally receives the effect of ‘Referendum: The Seussical’, although I suspect the choice of couplets was ultimately a good idea to keep the pace cracking along both dramatically and in terms of content. We do manage to get through quite a bit in just an hour.
In the finest Brechtian tradition, McAllister leaves us without any real answers – something I applaud in the face of worrying apathy and disinterest around the Referendum. There’s catharsis of a sort, but only the kind that encourages further debate. I particularly enjoyed Waugh’s address to the audience about half-way through; a jarring experience that should unsettle the front row rather than comforting them. And, being very much a play of its time and place, A Split Decision’s final reminder (apropos of nothing, brilliantly) that we have only “about a month” should really wake things up.