Strawberries in January @ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

cast list
Lesley Hart
Paul Thomas Hickey
Phil Mckee
Gabriel Quigley

directed by
Roxana Silbert
One might be forgiven for thinking that the French, and, it would seem, the French-Canadians, are biologically incapable of writing anything that does not attempt to be a huge, heartfelt meditation on the mystery of life, full of poetic metaphors and romantic exuberance. Strawberries in January tries its level best to fall into that category. “Everything’s better in films” goes the refrain of this new-old play from Canadian playwright Evelyne de la Cheneliere. Well, it depends how well they’re written, I reckon.

Part of the Traverse’s Playwrights in Partnership scheme, where a contemporary international playwright is matched with a Scottish one to produce a “Scots-English” version of their work (“why not just an “English” version?” one might enquire), Strawberries was originally performed in Quebec in 1999, and has already been translated into English (but obviously not well enough for the Traverse).

There are many comparisons that could be drawn between the nationalism of Scotland and that of Quebec . Fortunately, the spirit of Cheneliere’s writing rises above such parochial concerns to produce something which, like eating strawberries, is a sweet, mildly diverting pleasure, but one that lacks a satisfying topping of cream.

The plot revolves around four main characters whose lives are intertwined in a way they do not entirely realise at the beginning. So far, so Francais. Caf barista Francois is also a screenwriter, who tries, like all writers, to fill every memory he has of his ex-girlfriend, Sophie, with significance. Meanwhile, stuck in the countryside, an old friend of Sophie’s, Lea, writes letters to her she cannot send since she doesn’t know where Sophie lives. Finally there is Robert, a university professor with a philosophically aloof take on everything, but who is, deep down, looking for love.

Cleverly and simply staged, this is pure candy-floss for the brain, an archetypally French piece of whimsy, full of the clashes of romance with reality, done with Gallic style and Scottish accents. There is some tremendous characterisation, in particular from the terrific Gabriel Quigley as Sophie, as well as a subtle, controlled performance from Phil McKee as Robert. However, it is the clunkiness of the script which makes the sweetness all to saccharine.

It is with the clumsy introduction of themes and the quaint rounding-up and summarising of the main moral at the end of the play, that the piece fails to lift itself above the ordinary. It is only becuase of the passionate commitment of the performers and the excellent direction and design that one feels that there is anything substantial to the piece. Cheneliere has taken a very simple idea – “everything’s better in films” – and pretty much kept it there, not suffusing her characters with anything much more than a desire to be happy. This is not the stuff of French art-movies, despite its superficial resemblance to them.

Nonetheless, this is only a criticism of the piece on its own terms – an attempt to be philosophical by trying to infuse what are fairly trite observations with great significance. “Strawberries are better when they’re not in season” says Sophie. I literally scratched my beard at this line, before realising that there is really much less to it than might be dreamt of in the writer’s cod-philosophy. If you like your romantic comedies done with a drop – a drop, mind – of existentialism, however, you will find much to cheer you up here. Just don’t mistake it, like I almost did, for anything too deep.

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