I’d be absolutely useless in hell. I’d slide straight into a bottomless mood, and spend the rest of time and a day moping and feeling sorry for myself.
As many a ballad will tell you, the point of being in hell, or encountering the devil in any context, is to formulate a plan to outwit him and make your escape. Prudencia Hart – authority on Scottish ballads – clearly knows this.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has so far existed as a studio show, and should probably have stayed there. I don’t mean that unkindly. It’s an effervescent, light-hearted piece, ideally suited to intimate surroundings – a mash-up: part ceilidh, part ballad, with a bit of drama and generous helpings of wit and humour.
To scale up David Greig’s initial idea of ‘a theatre ballad in a pub’, Debbie Hannan’s main stage production needed to make more of the Exchange’s considerable capacity for stage effects. While the rationale for paring it back clearly aims to maintain that backroom-of-the-pub atmosphere – Asda car park sparingly represented by an illuminated green ‘A’ and the buildings of Kelso shown by small scale models (doubling as podium, footstool and stage) – the outcome is a fairly pleasant show that never really seizes the space.
Prudencia Hart is an academic, specialising in the ballads of the Scottish Borders. At a conference in Kelso, she bumps into Colin Syme, with whom she’s had a hate/hate (or possibly a love/hate?) relationship since their college days.
“I wanna f*ck those I envy,” sings Prudencia, and she certainly seems to envy Colin, who, “gets actual grants/ For recording football chants.”
After a disastrous presentation at the conference (members of the audience snooze and snore), things get even worse for her. They’re snowed in.
Colin tries to book them the only remaining room at the local B&B (“I’ll sleep on the floor,” he promises). Prudencia, via encounters with a Sassenach hen party and then a mysterious, chain-smoking single mum (Amelia Isaac Jones), winds up alone and lost in the snow. When the owner of the B&B appears just in time to save her, she notices but is unconcerned that his footsteps leave no mark in the snow.
The devil, it seems, has taken her.
Whilst act one is entirely in verse, act two opens in prose and the exchanges between Prudencia and the devil are dramatically more effective. (There is a key dispute between them later, in which Prudencia argues that verse is the more dangerous, constantly threatening to reveal one’s true emotions – witty, but not persuasive).
Not very daunted, Prudencia sets about cataloguing 100,000 books (all on her favourite topic) that fill the devil’s library. Not content with unwittingly confirming Colin’s earlier jibe that she’s “essentially a librarian,” she’s also plotting her escape. Her problem is, the devil never sleeps. There is, quite literally, “no rest for the wicked.” However, it transpires that he is enough of a man for there to be one activity following which he is guaranteed to nod off (clue: we’re not talking beer and football on tv, nor the Queen’s Christmas speech).
To cut a long story short, Prudencia does, eventually, make a break for it, allowing Colin an “Orpheus in Asda Car Park” moment.
Prudencia’s journey, from frumpy, stiff academic to seductive action heroine could be better marked: Joanne Thompson has charm in the title role, but Amelia Isaac Jones (in multiple roles) offers greater versatility. Oliver Wellington poses, preens and raps to winning effect as Colin Syme, whereas Paul Tinto needs more help (from director and effects) to bring depth to a rather underwritten devil.
The musical elements work well, led by Malin Lewis, gliding serenely through the evening and ably back by members of the cast. With traditional folk offered alongside covers of Rick Astley and Kylie, can the devil honestly claim to have all the best tunes?
Despite the occasionally fruity language and the (restrained) seduction scene, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart steers well clear of the edgy, commendable though it is to have a winter show aimed at adults.
A decent enough time was had by (almost) all.
THE STRANGE UNDOING OF PRUDENCIA HART is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 4 December 2021 to 15 January 2022.