Play Pieces: The Rhum Plants
The Phoenix, Inverness
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by Margaret Chrystall
IT takes a brave man to nurture a fast-paced comedy script from the dry seed of botanical fraud.
For Mangonel Theatre Company’s play THE RHUM PLANTS it took two – writer Phil Baarda and director Dave Smith of Right Lines.
With the cast of four’s massively energetic performances grafted on, Mangonel’s thriving specimen bloomed for Play Pieces’ new season – and fresh Phoenix base.
With the sold-out sticker on the door long before the lunchtime drama began, the only downside was a bit of a wait for the hot pie thrown into the ticket price (along with a free pint!).
The play opens back in the 40s, when a series of rare plant discoveries on Rum (then spelled Rhum) by Professor John Heslop-Harrison (Heather Corpe) alerted the scientific establishment. Top Oxbridge biologists were suspicious enough to hire amateur botanist John Raven (Andrew Dunlop) and his friend Creighton (Grant Morrison) to go to the island to take a first-hand look.
Cleverly the play opens informing a sceptical audience: "This is a story about a scientist ... but don’t let that put you off!"
Instantly there’s a playful, direct approach that lasts throughout.
The small space for the ‘stage’, means a lot of ingenuity in place of scenery and elaborate props.
With the cast decked out in white long-johns and moustaches held on by elastic, Raven and Creighton use a papier mache model of Rhum to help us visualise their journey.
They are sent on their mission by the ping pong playing posh Wilmott – "if Britain had a botanical god, Wilmott would be him". Wilmott continues his own investigation into Harrison, discovering the one-time miner has adopted his own double-barrel name and has an address that’s a lot snootier than his real one.
Back on the island, the two do their own secret investigations, use a path through the audience to get amongst us and find helpful people to help set up their tent’s invisible guy ropes.
And the serious mystery-solving behind the plant discovery is punctuated by broad humour – a comedy peeing scene, some bawdy anagrams and Raven and Creighton taste for banter and private jokes like "an alphabetical relaxant" or G & T.
They also encounter an annoying midge in their tent – the actor tickling them savagely while decked out in a beak-like paper mask to the audience’s delight
But once the duo meet the prof and lovely assistant Fenella (Chris Beaton – in an ingenious yellow hat with bows for plaits knitted by multi-talented writer Baarda!) they are left with a huge moral dilemma.
The three Inverness College student actors – Chris Beaton, Andrew Dunlop, Grant Morrison – and professional Heather Corpe coped well with the fast, furious action and from the off lived their characters.
Afterwards, writer Phil paid tribute to the cast – particularly Andrew Dunlop as Raven – handling all the Latin botanical plant names.
And he explained why telling the story of Professor John Heslop-Harrison’s great ‘discoveries’ on Rum - as the island is spelled now - being investigated had appealed to him.
"It’s about ambition, class and also about fraud and the idea that someone might get away with it, doing it for years and years. And there was the whole Oxbridge versus working class thing, plus the theory that maybe the professor’s field team were doing it as well."
The idea to give a comic twist came during the collaboration process.
"The first draft of the play was very straight and wordy and as we collaborated, we had the idea of making it like an Ealing Comedy and sending it up."
Now, after its world premiere last Friday at Elgin’s Drouthy Cobbler – Play Pieces will stage each drama in both Elgin then Inverness this season – Phil hopes to take the play back to its ‘home’.
He said: "We’re looking into getting funding to tour – we want to take it to Rum!"
Next month’s play is Wildbird’s Cat Plays Piano on Friday, October 10 at the Drouthy Cobbler, Elgin and Saturday, October 11 at The Phoenix, Inverness. doors for both 12.30pm for a 1pm start. The play is being programmed as part of Highland Mental Health Arts and Film Festival and Moray Feelgood Festival. for more: www.playpieces.co.uk