Graeae and Royal Exchange: Cosmic Scallies – an authentic and unorthodox portrait of working class life

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Cosmic Scallies is a new co-production from Graeae Theatre Company and Royal Exchange Theatre, written by Jackie Hagan, which makes its bow at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. It follows the friendship of two mismatched souls as one of them returns to their home town of Skelmersdale. Joe Turnbull was at Summerhall’s Northern Stage on 8 August to review.

Cosmic Scallies Dent and Shaun

Cosmic Scallies. Reuben Johnson (Shaun) & Rachel Denning (Dent). Photo: Jonathan Keenan

Authentic working-class voices in theatre seem to be as rare as a pea in a new-recipe Pot Noodle. Authentic disabled voices perhaps even more so – though a production by Graeae is usually a guarantee. But to get both, in one production, so loud and fiercely proud – well that’s like winning a hundred grand on a scratch card.

Skelmersdale, the obscure Northern town, referred to by the locals (and characters) affectionately as ‘Skem’ proves the perfect setting for this off-beat tale. Dent (Rachel Denning) is back in her hometown after a misspent foray to University, following the death of her Mam. Chance throws her into the path of Shaun (Reuben Johnson), a childhood mate. What follows is instantly relatable for anyone who has left a working-class home for supposedly greener pastures and then come back. Dent doesn’t fit in, in either of these worlds.

The reunion isn’t a fairytale one. Shaun and Dent’s exchanges are terse, laced with acerbic wit. There’s simmering tension, Shaun has a sense of an inferiority complex in contiguity with Dent’s university education. As Dent, disabled and in pain, continuously refuses Shaun’s overtures of help – her pride blinding her to the bleeding obvious fact she needs it – these tensions boil over.

This is a piece purely driven by character. It’s very light on plot. Cosmic Scallies is something of a debut for writer, Jackie Hagan, who is used to putting together one-woman shows with herself at the centre. As such, there’s always a danger of one of the two characters being a little two-dimensional. Hagan has peppered both Dent and Shaun with enough of herself to make them feel fully rounded, helped by convincing performances from both Denning and Johnson.

Cosmic Scallies writer and director

Cosmic Scallies writer Jackie Hagan & director Amit Sharma. Photo Jonathan Keenan

But it seems the real star of this show is Skem itself and the little nuggets of working-class wisdom it provides. From the outside looking in, with poverty porn lenses on, it’s just another shithole – or should that be black hole for aspiration. But Cosmic Scallies reveals it as a place with a unique community spirit, where people look out for each other.

Shaun refers to most of its inhabitants with well-meaning nicknames like ‘Dufflecoat Dave,’ the dealer who can get his hands on just about anything, like Diazepam for dogs. Dent only recoils in horror when he refers to ‘Wheelchair Terry’. But in Shaun’s plain-sighted and non-judgemental attitude, he exposes the absurdity of middle-class liberalism which is so ‘right on’ with its use of language, yet washes its hands with the lived experience of difference.

The pacing of the show felt a little off. It was slow to get started and then ended prematurely, just as you feel you are properly getting into the characters and the show into its rhythm. The set takes cues from director Amit Sharma’s previous Graeae smash, The Solid Life of Sugar Water, providing several spaces for captions which switch font to indicate a change of scene. The concrete aesthetic works but is somehow less elegant and polished as that previous production. A small replica is available in the foyer for visually impaired visitors to get hands on with.

Whilst the writing is laced with a delightful combination of poetic flourishes and laugh-out-loud one-liners, I can’t help but feel there’s a missing ingredient – the pea in the Pot Noodle – that would elevate this to high-rise heights. Jack Thorne’s Sugar Water was always going to be a tough act to follow. This is altogether more unorthodox. But anyone who knows what it’s like to constantly live on the emergency leccy, or do overtime at their dead-end job in their dreams, will surely love its genuine soul. This is a play for the misfits, and for that, I really like it.

Cosmic Scallies is on at Northern Stage at Summerhall, Edinburgh 5 – 26 August.