Allison Silver

Perhaps no show could live up to the weight of expectations. The prospect of a National Theater of Scotland collaboration with David Harrower was impossibly tantalizing.

Perhaps no show could live up to the weight of expectations. The prospect of a National Theater of Scotland collaboration with David Harrower was impossibly tantalizing. Would the company that brought us “Black Watch,” still on a world tour after two years, prove a winning combination with the Scottish playwright whose international hit, “Blackbird,” is newly slated to transfer to the bigscreen? That “365” does not scale the heights of those earlier plays is hardly surprising; that it struggles to get off the ground, however, is a disappointment.

As with “Black Watch,” the intention behind “365” is to give voice to a silent minority. Where Gregory Burke’s play listened to soldiers with frontline experience in Iraq, the new production, scripted by Harrower during rehearsals, turns the spotlight on teenagers in state care under the British child welfare system who are making the transition to adult independence.

The play is set in a “practice flat,” an apartment designed to introduce the institutionalized youngsters to living on their own. The voiceover reading from a genuine document warning young people that “fires can be dangerous things” sounds patronizing until you realize that even boiling a kettle can be a major hurdle for those brought up in the care system.

Advance publicity implied the show would call this system into question, and indeed, there is a strong case for believing the U.K. does not do enough for vulnerable young people in this time of transition. But there’s nothing in “365” to suggest practice flats are a problem. On the contrary, the teenagers’ halfway houses seem like good places to make mistakes while a social worker is never far away. Whether or not this is true in real life, the play makes no specific political complaint.

Thus “365” does not call upon our anger, merely our empathy, presenting a series of fragmented stories to illustrate the psychological pressures suffered by anyone brought up away from their parents.

There’s the boy who has a damaging sexual relationship with two girls; the young woman who’s too scared to leave her room and passes the time striking matches; and the boy trying hard to distance himself from the violence of his dysfunctional family. Most moving are the stories of children with a fractured sense of their past — no family memories to draw on, unreliable case notes to refer to — and therefore an incomplete sense of their present identity.

Many of these tender moments are lost in the vastness of Edinburgh’s Playhouse Theater, however, and would be more suited to the intimacy of a studio.

An equal problem is the lack of central focus; we never stick with any character long enough to care about them. Without our emotional connection, Steven Hoggett’s choreographed scenes, so poignant in “Black Watch,” are merely decorative. Likewise, the emotion behind Paul Buchanan’s soulful song does not resonate. Helmer Vicky Featherstone compensates by creating a dreamy theatrical landscape in which children can be carried off by balloons and a room can tilt on its axis. But our lack of engagement means these devices seem flashy rather than romantic.

The clearest political statement comes in the closing minutes, when Featherstone floods the stage with dozens of teenagers. They stand anonymously in the half-light while the door closes on the apartment behind them. They represent the 6,000 children who leave care in the U.K. each year only to be ignored by mainstream society. It’s a powerful image, but one diminished by the haphazard patchwork of scenes that precede it.


Playhouse Theater, Edinburgh; 1,600 seats; £25 $46 top


A National Theater of Scotland, Edinburgh Festival presentation of a play in one act by David Harrower. Directed by Vicky Featherstone. Movement director, Steven Hoggett.


Sets and costumes, Georgia McGuinness; lighting, Colin Grenfell; original music, Paul Buchanan; sound, Adrienne Quartly. Opened, reviewed Aug. 22, 2008. Running time: 2 HOURS.


With: Ryan Fletcher, Scott Fletcher, Siu Hun Li, Simone James, Marlene Madenge, Helen Mallon, John Paul McCue, Laura McMonagle, Julie Wilson Nimmo, Ben Presley, Ashley Smith, Rebecca Smith, Gayle Tefler Stevens, Owen Whitelaw. Voiceover: Alison Peebles.
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