Margaret and her husband Adam own a shipyard in Fife they built up to be the best in the area, after inheriting it from Margaret’s father. They lead a comfortable life in their small town and have two grown daughters. Though on the surface their life is idyllic, deep cracks are concealed under the family’s glossy veneer. Political conflict, local gossip and an unstable economy threaten the foundations of family life in Better Together, the winner of the Brockley Jack’s annual new writing competition and festival. This modern, Scottish kitchen sink drama, like an updated Death of a Salesman, has sibling rivalry, the collapse of an entrepreneurial father who’s stuck in the past and a thematically complex story that mirrors the real family life in modern Britain. Excellent performances and a script instinctively following a course of intimate conflict make this play a true winner.
It’s youngest daughter Arlene’s (Eleanor Morton) eighteenth, and she has just received her university offers. Determined to leave Scotland after the country failed to leave the UK, she breaks it to her parents that she’s off to Sweden. Mum (Kate Russell-Smith) is supportive, but dad Adam (Rikki Chamberlain) is most definitely not ok with the prospect of her leaving Scotland. Older sister Shona (Rosalind McAndrew) has enough of her own problems to deal with, what with being a single mum and having a new man every week. Her troubles eventually spread to the rest of the family, the local industry-driven economy collapses, and Adam’s determination to do business how he’s always done it creates a perfect storm of collapse. Personality differences become more pronounced and conflict naturally unfolds as their lives unravel. A climactic, irreparable end is fantastically dramatic but still plausible after the extremes the characters have undergone. No one comes out of it well. In this regard, the plot is much more like real life than its twentieth century predecessors – it’s messy, unresolved and the family has suffered permanent consequences. The linear structure is textbook, but the actual storyline manages several surprises. Structurally, the dramatic arc is watertight, though some of the plot elements are predictable, such as Arlene’s summer employment situation.
The four actors make a fantastically believable family unit and close ensemble, with no one coming across as a weak link or a dominant force. Morton and McAndrew even look alike, adding to the overall believability. Kate Bannister’s direction is commendably invisible save for a few overly-choreographed transitions, and her work is well supported by Moi Tran’s domestic set centreing around the dining table.
There’s a heavy dose of Scottish working class life in the play, but the themes are abundant and universal, with something for everyone. Progression versus tradition, independence against safety, and old fashioned industry fighting corporate sterility are as present as political difference and familial struggles. It’s a rich tapestry of struggle that manages to avoid being overly dense.
Better Together is some of the best naturalism on the fringe at the moment. Though it follows a formula, it’s an effective and satisfying one. The play’s relevance and layers add depth and further resemblance to real life. Though inevitably tragic, the story’s events are exquisite in their unraveling. It’s a sparky, punchy story that leaves a long lasting glow.
Better Together runs through 28 May.
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