The little-known story of Lady Grange is a shocking one: a highborn 18th-century Scotswoman whose unfaithful husband had her abducted, she was left marooned on a Hebridean island.
Sue Glover uses her life story as inspiration for The Straw Chair, which features the character, Lady Rachel Grange (Siobhan Redmond), trapped on St Kilda, an archipelago on the farthest edges of the Outer Hebrides. The play revolves around her interactions with a pair of newlyweds: Christian minister Aneas (Finlay Bain) and his young wife Isabel (Rori Hawthorn), who have been sent to the islands in the summer of 1735 on a missionary drive to bring its inhabitants into the fold.
Directed by Polly Creed, the play deals in themes around the historical control of women and hostile attitudes to mental illness, also conjuring a bigger backdrop of secret Jacobite supporters among Scotland’s gentry.
But despite its fascinating themes and some evocative singing (musical direction by Hawthorn), The Straw Chair is frustratingly slow and over long with not enough connection between its characters and not nearly enough dramatic tension.
Rachel Grange is haughty, drunken and difficult with a tragic backstory – she speaks of being starved on the island, forced to eat animal excrement to survive. She is clearly a survivor who is determined to return to her husband in Edinburgh, who she claims to still love, to expose his crime. We are given information of the injustices done to her in long, shouty tracts, but, as a character, she does not elicit the sympathies she should.
The drama remains static and its characters rather too flat. Despite the outrageous facts around Rachel’s abduction, the dialogue is strangely lacking in bite or impact, and the language veers into strained poeticism at times.
There are some scenes of early married life between Isabel and Aneas in which we see some tension and tender romance, but they come too slowly and, on their own, are just not gripping enough.
Alex Marker’s set has an indistinct covered back area that is ostensibly a bedroom but looks more like an animal shed. There is also the straw chair of the title which is moved on and off stage, but whose significance is never really felt.
Lady Grange’s life story is an outrageous one which, as the programme makes clear, has resonances of violence against women down the centuries. But it feels smothered of its drama here.