Seanmhair review at The Other Room, Cardiff – ‘a striking new work’

Molly Vevers in Seanmhair at The Other Room, Cardiff. Photo: Aenne Pallasca Molly Vevers in Seanmhair at The Other Room, Cardiff. Photo: Aenne Pallasca

Seanmhair is the Scots Gaelic word for grandmother, and it is the innate maternal knowledge of this figure that proves pivotal in Hywel John’s new play, premiering at Cardiff’s The Other Room.

Under Kate Wasserberg’s direction, Sian Howard, Hannah McPake and Molly Vevers simultaneously perform different aged versions of Jenny. Howard’s frustration viscerally crackles as the oldest incarnation, a tired wife trapped being a nurse to an ailing husband. The attractive “glimmer, glimmer” of his eyes has been replaced with the “slurp, slurp” of tepid soup.

Vevers (previously so compelling in James Fritz’s Ross and Rachel) provides the counterbalance as the pink-cheeked 10-year-old, brimming with naivety and awkwardness. McPake is given far less to do as Jenny, but excels as the child’s Victorian patriarch.

Mark Bailey’s set design traps the women within a dank brick alleyway, reiterating the heavy sense of inevitability present in John’s play. The ensemble is most striking when moving as one heaving being within this confined space.

Another strength of the piece is how precisely Edinburgh is mapped out through landmarks and street names, from Princes Street to Leith. The contrasting geography is crucial to explaining the characters and prevents the episodic format from becoming confusing. We also get some swearing that would make Irvine Welsh proud.

A late scene, involving an abattoir, disrupts the otherwise effective simplicity of the piece. That aside, it is a striking new work that suddenly shifts from domestic memoir into thriller territory. The message is to always listen to your grandmother.

Tight ensemble acting animates new play about family secrets in 1950s Edinburgh