Review – The Wheel, Traverse Theatre

National Theatre of Scotland has had some corkers at the fringe. Black Watch is the obvious star but last year’s Beautiful Burnout was no less impressive in my mind.

As such, it’s difficult not to back them and of all the plays I was excited about for this year’s festival it was The Wheel at The Traverse which seemed to offer the most potential.

Played out on an incredible multi-level set resembling a bombed out building, this play starts simply enough: two sisters are preparing for a wedding when an invasion by foreign troops brings soldiers to their door. One of the sisters takes an abandoned girl off in search of her father. But that’s where the straightforward part of the plot finishes.

What follows is a magical realist tour of war zones across the world and across eras, ranging from the Peninsula War of 1808 to Nazi occupied Poland to Agent Orange-scarred Vietnam to an unnamed desert conflict fought by British troops. Our heroine troops ever onwards in her quest to find the girl’s father and thereby free herself from responsibility, collecting stray children as she goes like a Mother Courage in reverse.

Along the way she discovers the girl has mystical and perhaps malevolent powers, or at least the power to make others believe she does, leading them all to material wealth and unending misery in which the only solution is death.

It’s all a bit of a downer really.

I liked this play more writing about it now than I did watching it at the time. Intellectualised, it’s a fine piece of work but it didn’t raise the same questions on the stage as it has for me here on the page.

It’s not that it’s a bad production. Far from it. In technical and production terms it’s not a fringe effort at all and would sit at ease on any London or Edinburgh stage even if it weren’t August.

But there is something lacking: character. Why does our heroine behave as she does? Don’t know. What drives the malevolent force in the child? I can offer you a range of plausible and interesting potential answers, but I’d be guessing because there’s never enough flesh on the bones to back any of them up – which feels like a missed opportunity.