Sally – Traverse Theatre

Written by James Ley

Directed by Jemima Levick

Rating: 4 out of 5.

So, are you telling me you haven’t wanted to watch a one-woman version of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret? To witness the decadence of the Kit-Kat swanning around the theatres of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Broadway: all to the distinct twang and ad-libbed jabs from a Scottish star? Madness if not. A version which pulls out all the stops. Brechtian masks, puppetry – complete with ventriloquists. And none of that live orchestration guff, nothing but the finest pre-recordings for our Sally.

Yet this is precisely the set-up for Sally, or rather, this is what’s going on on stage. We, the audience, never get to see this tour-de-force masterpiece. No, we only get to see the backrooms, the dressing rooms, and the bathrooms. But if you know anything about the theatre – that’s where the magic happens.

The dressing rooms. Not the lavvy.

But as Sally’s Cabaret finds footing in grander and more significant venues, the fame and prestige begin to take a toll on our leading lady. Paranoid delusions creep in, fears of the Tory party sending spies ro even assassins, women with umbrellas and headsets following her, and worries that the past is beginning to repeat itself. It’s utter madness. Right?

Adding additional dimensions of the surreal, our titular Sally is played by none other than Sally Reid – remarkably dependable for their fusion of comedy and drama, an exceptional choice for the role. Bringing a tight grasp of Ley’s humoristic writing and striking an adorable match with co-star Sam Stopford as Tyler, Sally’s new (and enforced) assistant. Initially presenting as a preening, goo-goo-eyed fan, Tyler’s starstruck persona ebbs away into an endearing charm as the narrative begins to veer wildly into the surreal and paranoid, Tyler a grounding presence at first before Stopford gains free-reign to burst out.

Subtlety is far from Ley’s auteurship. From the depravity of Wilf, to the, well, depravity of Ode To Joy (How Gordon got to go to the nasty pig party), there’s an indulgence and refusal to conform elevating their writing to triumphant heights. But those familiar with the subtextual brilliance of the works, or indeed the wonder of Love Song to Lavander Menace, will take a break from the comedic offers to allow a spark of recognition. There exists a nuance which captures the mindset of the contemporary theatregoers by the unmentionables. And few in contemporary theatre are achieving this quality as marvellously as Ley.

The script has a Cheshire grin, a cheeky one, that hides a more thought-provoking insight than its humour initially bestows. The satire is dripping from the frequent namedrops of politicians and cultural name-stays to the concerns of normalising the far-right. There’s a genuine and unsettling sense of contemporary power-play, where extreme swings platform their enemies’ countenance to enable, rather than subvert, to keep in check. At its grimmest – Sally is a reminder that, despite our facile notion that artistic expression is a luxury of the Left, it is, whether we wish to face it or not, the playground of the elite, of the far-right, and a cornerstone of the fascist ‘preservation’ mythos.

Indeed, Sally’s joie de vivre comes from its utterly upfront and nihilistic opinions on politics and the mess we find ourselves swimming within. Reserved, but pace-effective, Jemima Levick’s direction is a touch conservative (the positive conservative, mind), enabling Stopford and Reid to make the most of their performance and emotive measurements rather than concern themselves with unnecessary frills or frequent scene changes. And where change does occur, small touches of scenic shifts offer a delightful twist of the comedic knife, whether it’s the growing florists PPP has evidently taken stocks out with or the treats within the dressing room poster to offer small comments on the industry at large; personally £459.99 for a Drury Lane performance is still relatively cheap given the current state of the Westend…

There is an unquestionable sense that, upon leaving the Traverse Theatre, audiences will carry a smile and a full belly. One of mirth, giddy and warmth. But on the bus home, the smile may fade as the anxiety of it all creeps in. That’s genius of Sally. One which, for its stumbles with pushing information out in a shorter runtime, what it may cram into the script, it communicates crystalline the agonising border in which art and politics meet – an uncomfortable alliance: one where one parasitically takes from the other.

Rather like a stage-star, and their unwanted, ambitious assistant.

Dissects an Uncomfortable Alliance

Sally runs as part of the Play, Pie & Pint season at the Traverse Theatre until September 24th.

Tickets for which may be obtained here.

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