Even before The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” officially begins at Newcastle-under-Lyme’s New Vic Theatre, three balladeers are already on the stage mixing with the audience as they take their seats.

They sing a few songs before getting the audience to sing along with The Proclaimers’ hit “I’m Gonna Be” and The Corries “Will Ye Go Lassie Go”.

After this and with the audience now all seated, a new character arrives on stage – this is the academic and folk song specialist Prudencia Hart, and immediately there is a shift from the jolly impromptu singing to a play that is – for the first half at least – mainly spoken in poetic rhyme, like a modern-day Shakespeare. As the play develops you also realise that the two songs we have just sang are really preparation for the strange journey that Prudencia and the audience are about to be taken on.

Like all good art, this David Greig play can be interpreted on many different levels. Anyone with an interest in literature and music will enjoy the debate between what constitutes folk music – is it the traditional mythical songs which Prudencia loves, or the more contemporary football chants and Kylie songs which fellow academic Colin Syme prefers. Anyone who works in academia will enjoy the digs at pretentious research titles and conference stereotypes. On another level you can just sit back and catch
the banter and go along with the surrealism of it all.

This play started out at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and it still has that anarchic, joyful feel about it. For example a tea trolley is used to denote the transport Prudencia uses to get to Kelso on the Scottish borders for her conference on folk music. The setting in the borders is also a metaphor, as there are borders to be crossed in the play. For Prudencia this is about changing her views, becoming more relaxed about who she is, or can be. The play also crosses the border from realism into magic realism by the second half. The start of the second half sees Prudencia confront her personal devil during a night’s stay in a bed and breakfast. The play’s text goes from poem to prose as she works out who she is and what she believes.

While we, the audience, may have got lost with Prudencia for a while, the play skilfully brings us all back together, uniting us with a rousing Kylie hit “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” and even here, the words seem to take on new meaning. All the actors/musicians are brilliant and convincing in their many different roles and by the end some of the audience were standing up for a standing ovation and telling staff afterwards it was the best play they had seen for a while and I agree.

This is a play that lingers in the mind long after the final applause, and one that can be revisited several times, and we would still find something new to think about or understand.

Review by Jackie Gregory