A year after the death of 17-year-old Roslyn in a car accident, the residents of the little Highland fishing village are still struggling to cope with their loss. Cath, Roslyn’s mother and the owner of the local inn, is understandably eaten up by grief. Matt, the dead girl’s boyfriend, spends his days alone at the beach and has problems communicating with his new girlfriend Corrine. Izzy, the Minister’s teenage daughter, maintains a morbid fascination with the life of her former babysitter, acting out carefully-worded role plays about the dead girl’s last days with her friend Pam. Even elderly friends Sadie and Ina are not unaffected. Roslyn is the eponymous girl with red hair and her absence permeates all their lives.
In addition to being Keira Knightley’s mum, Sharman Macdonald is a playwright of elegance and economy, as displayed previously in the award winning When I Was A Girl I Used To Scream And Shout and The Winter Guest. She accurately captures the speech patterns of all three generations, and prevents sentimentality from engulfing the proceedings by injecting occasional flashes of dark humour. It’s a gentle piece of theatre, featuring some neat parallels. We watch as Cath (Patricia Kerrigan) is slowly romanced by Stuart (Christopher Dunne), a passing trucker who knows a thing or two about bouillabaisse. It’s one of many tenderly depicted pairings – the relationship between Matt and Corrine feels rather underwritten in comparison – though it is sometimes hard to believe Cath could be genuinely moved by some of the dud lines Stuart feeds her, even if his intentions appear to be decent enough.
Adolescent Izzy is the most complex character, her worldview tainted by her father’s beliefs. A daydreamer, her obsession with Roslyn is such that her friend Pam eventually can’t stand it anymore, telling her, “You haven’t got a life of your own. You suck at other people’s.” Helen McAlpine is amazing in the role of the troubled young girl, but there’s something about the character that never quite clicks. As the two old ladies, Ina and Sadie, sitting on the seafront and munching fish and chips, bonded by years and other, unspoken connections, Sheila Reid and Sandra Voe, provide the real heart of the piece – and get many of the best lines.
Robin Don’s set is a wonderfully atmospheric creation, subtly quartered to encompass several locations: the beach, the inn, Izzy’s house and the cemetery. It has an idyllic Mediterranean feel in keeping with Macdonald’s warm approach. It has a not quite real quality that compliments the play’s particular universe.
In his New Statesman column, Michael Portillo referred to the play as an upmarket soap opera, which, though not meant to be scathing, does Macdonald’s writing a real disservice – especially given the recent state of Eastenders. True, The Girl With Red Hair is occasionally overly whimsical in tone and. for a play that lasts just 90 minutes, contains far too many unnecessary lulls, but the drama has a gently lyrical quality and a genuine warm-heartedness. This is a refreshingly hopeful piece of theatre, that leaves the darker areas of grief unexplored and concentrates instead on the need to reconnect with life.