Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, touring until September 29, four stars

Set on a piece of waste ground where the city meets the countryside, Xana Marwick’s new play is a carefully considered and powerfully emotive drama for theatregoers aged 12 and over. It brings together a middle-aged man with a Mohican haircut (who we first meet lying unconscious, plastered on cheap cider), a hungry and homeless boy, and, thanks to some inventive graphics, a gregarious crow.

The man (played with a tremendous combination of rage, frustration and regret by David McKay) is the quintessence of that political buzz phrase “social exclusion”. Haunted terribly by what he was driven to do by poverty, his response to being marginalised by society has been to literally live in the margins.

The boy (an utterly compelling, deeply moving performance by young Ashleigh More) is fending for himself, a bewildered victim of a desperately unequal society and an insufficient welfare system. His prodigious knowledge of crows (which, he tells the man, are often better at nurturing their young than humans are) is just one window into his already battered potential.

It’s tempting to compare the play to Ken Loach’s famous 1969 film Kes. In truth, however, director Heather Fulton’s staging (a co-production by Frozen Charlotte theatre company and performing arts group Stadium Rock) resides somewhere between Loach’s magnified social realism and the existentialism and ragged co-dependency of the plays of Samuel Beckett.

The relationship between the man and the boy is complex and increasingly poignant. It is enhanced by music (the man plays the electric guitar); not least a welcome outing for the late Michael Marra’s song Take Me Out Drinking Tonight.

Designer Katy Wilson’s semi-realist set (with its cutaway representation of a caravan and 2D objects) is an effective visual reflection of the impressionistic strand in Marwick’s script.

Beautifully acted, imaginatively political and emotionally compelling, this little two-hander is a resonating piece of theatre.

For tour details, visit:

The Last Witch
Pitlochry Festival Theatre, various dates until October 11 then at Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 30 to November 3 and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, November 7-10. Three stars

When The Last Witch, Rona Munro’s play about Janet Horne (the Sutherland woman who, in 1727, was the last person to be executed for witchcraft in Britain), premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2009, it seemed like a missed opportunity.

Horne’s story seemed not only inherently dramatic, but also given to bleak poetry. Yet, Munro’s play seemed to have contrived to denude the tale of much of its power and moral weight.

The premiere production (which was directed by the excellent Dominic Hill and boasted a superb cast) failed to overcome the script’s uncomfortable lurching between metaphysical lyricism and self-conscious colloquialism. So it proves here in Richard Baron’s bold and nuanced staging for Pitlochry Festival Theatre and Borders-based company Firebrand.

Deirdre Davis plays Horne with an impressive combination of rage, madness, humour and (not least in the presence of the young embodiment of the British state Captain David Ross) lasciviousness. She is supported ably by a strong cast, particularly Fiona Wood as Horne’s clever and exasperated daughter Helen and David Rankine as the convincingly riven Puritan Captain Ross.

Designer Ken Harrison’s set, a quasi-abstract stage-within-a-stage, is admirably receptive to the production’s various, and highly effective, projected images. Both the design and Jon Beales’s memorable live music and sound (including beautifully accomplished vocals which are reminiscent of sacred polyphonic song) give the production an atmospheric dimension that the play itself is not quite worthy of.

Munro’s penchant for diluting her poetics with banalities hamstrings her play. For instance, the scene in which Horne gives water laced with hallucinogenic herbs to her daughter and her neighbour feels insipid, rather than significant.

The drama is weak structurally, too. It stutters to a close, eschewing a memorable ending for a second, much less potent denouement.