An ambitious enterprise limps to an end with “Shining Souls,” the 13th and final production in Peter Hall’s shining Old Vic endeavor to restore a true repertory company to the London stage. The new play division has been the most problematic aspect of a largely laudable season, and “Shining Souls” doesn’t set the matter right.
Despite fine reviews in its Edinburgh Festival premiere in August 1996, Chris Hannan’s play looks confused and exposed on a venerable London stage whose future, post-Hall, is now in doubt.There’s no doubt about Hannan’s interest in language. Like fellow Scot Irvine Welsh (“Trainspotting”), Hannan writes in a baroque, imagistic tongue that can seem both contemporary and classical. (Sample line: “The sun’s fell off his chariot in his sky.”) But though the air is thick with Pentecostal fervor and talk of salvation (not to mention self-recrimination and the threat of violence), the florid pungency never adds up. The author is so busy announcing and embellishing his world that he never draws us into it.
The play is set on the wedding day of Anne (Alison Peebles), whose trip to the altar constitutes a reckoning of sorts. The two-timing partner of Billy 1 (Conleth Hill) and Billy 2 (Tom Mannion), Anne traces her belief in a familial curse to the suicides of her twin sons. While her Jesus-quoting daughter, Mandy (Shirley Henderson), reads tarot cards, Mandy’s putative lover, Charlie (Stuart McQuarrie), is on a not altogether honorable quest involving two mothers and a degrading scam. And though Anne’s wedding is “about hope,” sadness prevails throughout.
Bunny Christie’s two-tiered set, like Hannan’s staging, communicates little sense of place beyond the able cast’s thick Glaswegian accents. One comes away awash in a metaphysical riff that generates far more emotion onstage than it ever does among the audience. “I’m not talking about life,” says Mandy at one point. “Life’s a metaphor.”
“Shining Souls’ would benefit from considerably less metaphor and quite a bit more life.