EFR - Reviews of Harpy

Eleanor Gunn

at 08:34 on 13th Aug 2018

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‘Harpy’, the tale of Birdie the hoarder, is a one-woman show from award-winning playwright Philip Meeks. Starring Su Pollard, with a strong team backing her up, it seems set to go down well. The queue to enter the White Belly stage snakes around the entire bar, and the stage itself has only one or two chairs free. Looking up and down the queue it seems the average audience member is a little older than myself – I suspect that the major draw isn’t necessarily the play but the leading lady.

Birdie lives alone in a house that’s filled to the brim with stuff she’s hoarded over the years. Slightly manic and utterly mad, she is a recluse, and though she is infamous she is also invisible. She spends most of the first scene talking to her pet fish and shouting through the wall to her neighbour. She has taken great offence to her neighbour chucking empty bottles over the fence, and so has begun doing karaoke in the middle of the night in revenge. Pollard acts out the voices of all the other characters herself, emphasising the sense of derangement.

Birdie talks often about how she was responsible for killing her aunt Maureen, a house bound hoarder just like herself. We later learn, however, that Maureen was killed by her own collection. Birdie hears her voice all the same, seemingly wracked with guilt for a crime she never committed. It’s a strange play, as we can’t necessarily believe anything our narrator tells us. Throughout the play you’re left constantly second-guessing the narrative. Birdie herself admits at the start that, “stories are just what people call things that happen to them… but that means they can be rewritten.”

It’s not just Birdie’s story that the script focuses on. We also see how another woman, described by her neighbours as a monster, has become a local folk-tale all of her own. She is the harpy, monster, witch who lives in a health hazard home and steals children. It is a wonderful example of the power of fear and prejudice. Birdie hasn’t just been isolated by her issues – she’s been rendered entirely invisible.

Things seem to begin to look up at the end: Birdie almost makes friends with her neighbour, her social worker has promised that she is the main priority to fix, and Birdie is less agitated. But the script finishes with the opening sequence of losing, then finding her breakfast in an old plastic bag. Some things never change. ‘Harpy’ leaves the audience with the worrisome impression that Birdie’s story is just about to repeat itself.

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Tamzin Kerslake

at 08:40 on 13th Aug 2018

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Penned as a “National Treasure”, Su Pollard’s first time at the Fringe brought a new writing and a solo show. Pollard plays the brazen Birdie; a hoarder. Or hag. Yet as she unravels her life to her social workers it becomes clearer that this house is not just a safety net against rising prices, but a patchwork of her life. Acting to make up for something that was once taken from her, Birdie is determined to never lose anything again.

Pollard is a delight on stage. She delivers lighter moments perfectly, weaving the audience an intricate pattern of emotion and pitch, being most at home singing into her homemade brush karaoke machine. The audience were highly enjoying the production, especially following one of Birdie’s tangents about how society is changing, particularly the local café now selling paninis. It must be said that a lot of the pop culture jokes were lost on me, but it was clear with a quick glance around the auditorium that I was not the show’s desired demographic.

Something must also be said for the venue. Performed in White Belly at the Cowgate Underbelly, the cluttered stage representing the house came off as too small and distant. This took away the intimacy of the dialogue and its setting. Instead, I found myself detached from Birdie, especially going into softer and darker tones of the show, whereby Pollard was coming off as shouting to be able to project her voice across this cold hall, sounding coarse rather than frail and vulnerable. This detachment affected my viewing of the show significantly, especially as someone who it was not entirely aimed at. Yet, this may be part of the issue of the show. The message, to me, focused on looking after the older generation, understanding the pain they may have suffered, and trying to connect with them. However, the older style of writing came across like a Radio 4 afternoon play. This is not a criticism of sorts - I'm often fond of such dramas - but to me, 'Harpy' was too dated in its style to be a mode of connecting to a younger audience.

A such, I find this hard to give a fair review. The older audience adored the show and Pollard herself; she is clearly a very talented performer and the writing poses questions to think about on a second reading. Therefore, if you are a fan of the more traditional solo shows and the work of Pollard then it is thoroughly recommended. However, as an outlier, I shan't be hoarding tickets for this show myself.

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