The Squirrel Plays could so easily have been a heavy-handed approach to abortion, made ridiculous by the unusual metaphor of squirrel infestations. Those looking for a preaching, angry play, however, will have to look elsewhere at the Fringe. The Squirrel Plays carries off its concept with subtlety and aplomb.
The set is used inventively without being obtrusive; small, brightly painted birdhouses represent well-kempt suburbia in miniature, haunting the fringes of the play with their respectability at all times. The direction exploits the opportunities for comedy; a blanket is unfurled to make a vertical bed, then effortlessly reused as the low-hanging roof of an attic; those sitting at a table hold up a board, and as some characters stand up to join a heated debate, the board lurches wildly while the remaining characters struggle frantically to hold it steady.
What is normally an unavoidably hard hitting, sober subject is elevated in The Squirrel Plays by a refusal to allow the theme to supress other shades of emotion – tenderness, humour, even boredom, all find their place in the play. The characters themselves are slight stereotypes; the soft mother, the local resident’s association tyrant. It’s a testament to the skill of the cast that they don’t allow themselves to be consumed by these types, but rather make space for their characters to experience inner conflict. The central couple, Tom and Sarah are particularly striking as they vacillate between the perfect image of young love, and the earnest fear and despair that lies beneath. The veneers of respectable normality that cover all the characters in this play are not so much shattered as stretched so thin that they become translucent, revealing an aching loneliness and unhappiness, particularly in Tom and Sarah, as they both try to process the infestation and destruction (of a squirrel, of a child), in their own deeply incompatible ways.
Similarly, the central metaphor of squirrels as children does not act to obscure the act of abortion (at least not to the audience) but instead to reveal and place pressure on the pro-choice and pro-life movements in more complex ways. Mentions of ‘unwanted squirrels’ being the result of ‘carelessness’ highlight the ludicrous nature of certain arguments against abortion, whilst the defamiliarization brought about by the metaphor allows the audience to think on the subject at one remove from their own, often very strongly held, opinions.
This is a striking, loveable production, skilfully directed. It jumps with ease the hurdle at which many Fringe productions fall: to handle a major contemporary issue with exploratory thoughtfulness.