Sub Rosa @ Hill Street Theatre, Edinburgh

cast list
Adam McNamara, Angela Darcy, Isabelle Joss, Benny young, Isabella Jarrett, Claire Dargo

directed by
David Leddy

Edinburgh is a city where the ghosts float close to the surface. All that old stone, those dark, descending alleys and subterranean chambers; its easy to let ones imagination of the hook and this is something David Leddy’s bloody Victorian yarn taps into. Sub Rosa actually began life in the dark nooks and crannies of Glasgows Citizens Theatre, but it has been successfully transplanted to a new and suitably Gothic space in Edinburghs New Town.

The Lodge of Edinburgh, which doubles as the Hill Street Theatre during the Fringe, is a Masonic Hall and the building is full of atmospheric details: star-slatted ceilings, religious paintings and oak panelled walls.

The audience move from room to room, led by black-clad ushers (who are more than just body-movers and do some subtle scene-setting before they let people into the building). In each space the audience encounter a new character and, chapter by chapter, the grisly story of Flora McIvor, music hall chorus girl, is allowed to unfold. A Strong Man, a sinister Wig Master, a pair of gin-sodden Siamese Twins who might be dead, a gentlewoman of lenient virtue, each takes their turn to describe the next cruel set of events to befall young Flora at the hands of Mr Hunter, the diabolical manager of the Winter Palace.

The music hall world in which they live is dark as a blood stain, cracked and black, and their story is replete with concealed corpses, snapped bones, forced miscarriage and the fog of opium, becoming increasingly grisly in tone with each new twist. The building has been wonderfully utilised; it almost seems to groan as the audience ascends the stairs. Much attention has been given to the props, the small details: the dusty hairpieces and hanging gowns in the Wig Masters workshop, the scent of lavender balm in the Strong Mans room.

Certain elements of the macabre narrative appear to have been tweaked to make it better suited to the new space, but the atmosphere generated is considerable. Its not as immersive as a piece by a company like Punchdrunk; it remains a distinct series of scenes rather than plunging you into a completely realised world, yet the building itself ensures a sense of cohesiveness. The efforts of the cast are also considerable, each actor shaping their segment and connecting with the audience.What lets the piece down, if only slightly, is the writings constant tilt towards the horrific.

By setting its sights so firmly on the audience’s stomach rather than on their heart or their head, by eschewing subtlety and allusion and diving directly into a pool of gore and viscera, its not nearly as unsettling as it might be. It’s telling that the most unnerving moment is the final vertiginous descent into the cool, moonlit car park and the last look back up at the glinting building.

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