Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 1 Nov
It sneaks up on you unexpectedly, this full-length debut by Sam Holcroft. At first, she gives the impression of writing a lightweight comedy of high school life; all cat-fights, smashed windows and detentions.
But something is afoot in the biology class. It explains why Meg Fraser’s teacher takes cover on hearing the glass break and why the boys are leaving one by one. Despite the knockabout Grange Hill ambience, this is school during wartime and Fraser’s cheeriness turns out to be as much Dunkirk spirit as enthusiasm for the job.
Then, just as we’re settling down for an adolescent war-is-bad type drama, Holcroft ups the stakes once more. Slowly she reveals the connection between Fraser’s earnest lessons in Darwin’s theory of evolution and the unnamed conflict outside.
The boys, in their courtship rituals, violent sexual advances and readiness to fight in class, are walking embodiments of the selfish gene. By going to war, never to return, they promise to put into practice the ‘founder effect’, the theory that predicts a decrease in genetic variation – and therefore a likely increase in mutation – when a small population breaks away from a larger one.
The women left alone at the close of the play could be the end of the line or the start of some post-violent breakaway society.
Evolutionary theory is a huge amount for one play to take on and at times it feels as if Holcroft is playing with fire, so loaded is the material she’s dealing with. Putting aside the merits of the Darwinian arguments, however, we find moments of disturbing intensity as Holcroft takes on the grim implications of men at war. The scene in which crate-loads of bloodied uniforms arrive in the classroom for cleaning shows a playwright with a fearsome theatrical imagination.
Vicky Featherstone’s in-the-round production, the first in a season of debut plays staged by the National Theatre of Scotland and the Traverse, is sensitive to the play’s movement from teen knockabout to evolutionary debate, the lively performances holding together the play’s increasingly free structure. It is an uneven show, but one that haunts the imagination.