David Greig’s Pictish play was originally commissioned by Pitlochry Festival Theatre with the intention of it being part of their 2020 season. When the pandemic hit it was reimagined as an audio play by it’s author and PFT’s creative director Elizabeth Newman and broadcast to not inconsiderable acclaim on BBC Radio 3.
Watching it’s live World premier in the PFT’s recently built ampitheatre, nestled high in the woods over the theatre grounds, it is easy to see why it was reviewed so well. A genuinely original proposition, it’s plot concerns the capture and imprisonment of a Roman official Lucius by Pictish Witch Eithnie with the intent of using him to broker peace for her people.
The first act has echoes of 80’s mismatched buddy comedies, Richard Curtis romances (good ones like Four Weddings and a Funeral, none of your Love Actually nonsense) and even Misery, well if James Caan’s character was kind of into it and wrote wee love poems for Kathy Bates.
Reading that back it sounds like a weird Frankenstein’s monster of genres put into a big old theatre blender. However, the dialogue, comedy and plot are always unforced and natural, with Grieg never seeming over eager or needy for laughs or emotion. The best lines have a sort of throwaway Father Ted vibe and the dialogue is like a less foul mouthed Martin McDonagh, with Lucius’s fixation on crenulations particularly reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes love for Alcoves in In Bruges.
Of course, the small cast of Kirsty Stuart (returning from the radio adaptation) and Nicholas Karimi are a major factor in the humours high hit rate. Stuart will be familiar to any returning PFT attendees as one of their preternaturally talented and versatile repertory actors but Karimi was a new face to me. It’s perfect casting with the pair having an easy going chemistry and sharing adept comic timing. There is also something indefinable about Karimi’s inflection and enunciation, a certain preciseness that just amplifies the humour and is entirely fitting with his role as official.
The ampitheatre is the play’s greatest ally though. The ambient birdsong and rustling wind merge with Ben Occhipinti’s sound design for a result so immersive that it’ll make your 7.1 system at home sound like a Fisher Price boombox. There are also some really neat tricks with the stage design and minor special effects that due to the lack of knowledge of the venue genuinely catch me off guard. As do a couple of swallows who fly between the romantic leads at the stories denoument.
Adventures with the Painted People runs at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 4th July, tickets available here