Shaken and Stirred

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Review of 'Outlying Islands' by David Greig, Royal Court, London

Plays premiered at the Traverse Theatre at Edinburgh's Festival Fringe are generally well worth seeing, and 'Outlying Islands' is no exception. The storyline starts simply. Before the Second World War two enthusiastic ornithologists are sent by the 'Ministry' for a month to monitor the migratory and nesting habits of birds on the furthermost small empty island north of Scotland--empty, that is, save for the leaseholder and his niece. The plot then develops along two paths which have little connection with one another, though enacted by the same personnel. One is political and, unexpectedly, highly relevant today, the other sexual. Both subplots are gripping as they unfold.

In the first, the leaseholder's only interest is to get compensation for his losses. The ornithologists wonder what losses, and the secret of the Ministry's real intentions is gradually squeezed out of the leaseholder, to whom it had been divulged confidentially. History suddenly comes alive, as such an event really happened in British history. The current politics around weapons of mass destruction and the projected war on Iraq is also brought to mind.

With the consequent downgrading of dramatic emphasis on bird watching, the second subplot can come into its own, and it takes over the second half of the play. This involves sexual banter on the part of the two men, and their relationship with the leaseholder's niece, Ellen. She proves to be a very interesting and singular woman. Having been brought up on the island with very little contact with mainland people, her outlook is natural and uninhibited, and she takes it upon herself to lead the sexual encounters to remarkably explicit ends. This decides the outcome of the play as the ship arrives to take the ornithologists home.

This is an excellent play, riveting from beginning to end. Each of the characters is very well drawn, individual and psychologically convincing. The two subplots, while distinct, are each engrossing in their different ways, and manage to live happily together as they involve the same four people in whom an interest has been aroused in the earlier subplot and carried through to the later one.

This is a play well worth making the effort to see.