The Outer Hebrides have an austere challenging beauty about them and so too does Iain Finlay Macleod’s play Somersaults, relishing in an inscrutable quality which equally entertains and frustrates. After premiering in Edinburgh last year, director Russell Bolam has brought it to the intimate surroundings of the Finborough where its mix of English and Gaelic makes a fascinating exploration into where language and cultural heritage intersect in our lives.
Born on the Isle of Lewis (as was Macleod), David Carlyle’s James has since gotten it all. A lucrative dotcom business, a swanky pad in Hampstead, he even managed to marry the prettiest girl at university, but this has all come at a price – he’s become disconnected from his birthplace and increasingly so, from the language he spoke as a child, Scots Gaelic. And when his carefully constructed new life crashes down around him, it seems the ideal time to re-establish those links with home and the heart.
But those connections are growing ever fainter. As the Gaelic slips from his memory, so too is it sliding into inexorable decline as a world language, a fact underscored by the terminal illness of James’ father Sandy, Tom Marshall’s tenderly blythe patriarch. And in a world where all his possessions have been reclaimed by Richard Teverson’s unknowable liquidator, the one thing he thought he still had – the voice of his boyhood – appears to be as ephemeral as his more material possessions.
It’s an engaging premise and one that is fitfully fulfilled. James and Sandy’s scenes are largely played solely in Gaelic to powerful effect, showing the bond it forms between them, and Teverson plays up the creepiness of the man dismantling James’ life, even so far as to making inroads on his precious language in a genuinely chilling moment – the fear and impact of losing a minority language suddenly anatomised beautifully.
But the non-linear narrative isn’t quite brave enough, falling too easily into greater convention as the play progresses and so losing the enigmatic thrill with which Macleod’s writing began and exposing the thinness of some of the supporting characterisation. Bolam’s direction also reflects a similarly muddled tone, occasionally inspired but sometimes overly fussy and not quite aware of the limitations of this stage.
And the final scene, one of the most engaging of the night in its disconnected, semi-lecture format, feels too much like a collection of interesting facts that should have been somehow folded into the narrative. As it is, it is symptomatic of the unevenness of this play and this production – frequently commendable yet frustratingly elusive.