May Queen at Paines Plough's Roundabout – review
Frankie Meredith's play comes to London as part of a tour
Before cracking on with the review, it is worth recognising how lovely it is to see Roundabout back. Normally an Edinburgh Fringe stalwart, in this unusual year, the high-tech pop-up space feels like a familiar, trendy friend who has been in absentia for many months. Getting reacquainted was a particular highlight.
A second highlight was the thrill of seeing a play grounded in Coventry – blending the city of the before, the present and the future into one 90-minute production. A welcome experience for someone who has spent most of their life with a CV postcode.
Onto the show – it's 2022 and teenager Leigh (played with an initial warmth and casualness by Yasmin Dawes), has been selected as Coventry's May Queen as part of a gigantic celebration of the city. As the day approaches, Leigh's life spools out around her – she picks her dress, she gets excited with her mates, she flings herself into casual hook-ups with childhood friends. Then all goes awry – with blistering, gripping consequences, and Leigh's trepidation and joy slides into something much more harrowing.
Frankie Meredith's play is full to the brim with conceptual inventiveness – transforming the city setting into a melting pot of mental health debates and misogynistic aggression. There's a clear causal link between the two – masculine acts no doubt impact the welfare of young women, who all too often (as Leigh discovers) have little agency of their own. The safety of a birth town being warped into a garish vision of the male gaze is played for fantastic effect as Leigh's bubbling effervescence sours.
Meredith also finds fruitful ground in the space between narrative authority and the subjectivity of memory – Leigh begins to doubt her own account of events, heartbreakingly forcing her rapt audience to do the same. When we are encouraged to chant along in a moment of vicious retribution, a tinge of complicity stains any sense of camaraderie. It's the suggestion of an idea that could have been explored in more detail across a piece that is laden with thoughts and impressions, though, given the tragic tale, few resolutions.
Balisha Karra directs Dawes' solo performance adeptly, and the lengthy (too lengthy – it felt as though as much could be said in two-thirds of the time) piece is carried by what is a charismatic, endearing turn. Richard Howell's lighting throws up some fun moments – the green washes when Leigh receives a WhatsApp message. Welcome back Roundabout.