Preview Review: Velvet Evening Séance (Assembly)
Updated: Jun 10, 2022
The place where magic and theatre cross over in the venn diagram of performance is an intriguing one. Though the spectacle of unfathomable illusions have a nostalgic air of ignorance that woven into the more human component of theatre sounds interesting, there is the question of whether the ratio will be right; enough narrative structure, enough character, enough wonder, and so much more besides. Having never seen a show where the two collide I was curious to see how it would balance out in Ross Mackay and Suzie Miller’s “Velvet Evening Séance”, in which James MacGregor, a young medium, is put on trial and must convince us that he is innocent of the murder of his beloved brother.
The performance starts with our performer Scott Gilmour using his hands and fingers to tell a story of a boy helping his brother up a hill. It’s a clever, charming way to introduce the play, reminiscent of Martin McDonough’s “The Pillowman”…until you realise that instead of being a small, abstract way to introduce a larger and more complex story, it’s the start of the whole, rather simple, plot. I was surprised by how one dimensional the brotherly relationship was, and how uninteresting I found the challenges they faced were. If I cannot become invested in the conflict the protagonist faces, I cannot care about the outcome. What’s more, being the pernickety fun-sponge I am, a plot hole I couldn’t quite jump got in the way of my enjoyment.
In his role, Gilmour made some questionable choices. The trouble is that he, in real life, seems to be a lively and outgoing person, but his character is nervous and weak, so ultimately all I saw was a struggle between character and personality. There’s a lot of distracting fidgeting, wide eyes, and an unlikeable snivelling nature that seems to expect me to be a bit more smitten than I was. There was not a lot of variety in his performance either. The tone dips and grows between being sad and regretful to happy and hopeful, each change introduced by a change in music, a happier or sadder Gilmour and the words “ladies and gentlemen”. Finally, when it comes to playing multiple characters, the fluidity with which he changes from a timid boy to a monstrous man is not quite as smooth as some solo performers pull them off.
That said, the ending was unexpected, so walking out I felt a certain (if rather brief) satisfaction. It also took advantage of some very neat theatrical techniques: the séance scene was creative, the figure made from a cloth to represent his father is metaphorical, and the music throughout is atmospheric enough to overcome its repetitive nature. And in truth I don’t mind a simple plot. If the main attraction is the magic, then that is exactly what we need. Trouble is, that there isn’t much magic. I don’t profess to be an expert in this area but I ask that when I am watching a magic show, I know when a trick is being performed, but not how. Sadly there seemed to be some moments intended to be tricks, but that had me questioning whether they were illusions or standard theatrical trickery. After watching so much exposition, I wanted a little more. Ultimately though, I think the show has untapped potential. Given what I saw was a preview, I hope that in the time between now and the first official performance at the Fringe on the 5th of August, the show will have been tightened up and create a magical evening. Two stars.
"Velvet Evening Seance" is on at 16:30 at The Assembly (venue 35) until the 28th of August