Review: Mouthpiece, at the Traverse Theatre

Mouthpiece, by Kieran Hurley, takes a meta-analytical scalpel to the concept of theatre as social commentary. A tremendous script, and strong performances, ultimately render this show equal to its daring, and complex, narrative ambitions.


📍 Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
📅 06 – 15 February 2020
🕖 7:30pm Tue – Sat / 2:30pm Sat
🕖 Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes (no interval)
👥 Created and performed by The Traverse Theatre Company
📚 New writing
💰 From £10
🎭 Audio Description, and BSL available Thu 13th.

Had one opened the pages of the Harvard Crimson in June 1967, the artistically interested might have clocked playwright, Timothy S. Mayer’s eloquent essay, “The Cult of Social Theatre.” Brecht, and Shaw, for all their popularity, and progressive zeal, says Timothy, seem to have no ability to manifest the slightest tangible change, either in government, or legislation.

Despite this, and just as now, the theatre going demographic demonstrated a mass desire for “social commentary” theatre. One need only walk the streets of Edinburgh in August to witness the responding ocean of “important”, “cathartic”, and “progressive” works on offer. 

There’s no question that Mouthpiece certainly rides that wave of public (the relatively, if not exclusively, socially elite theatre-going public) interest; but it does so with complete, and horrified self-awareness. The result is tremendous.

The play opens upon the heights of Salisbury Crags, where Libby (Shauna MacDonald) stands before a precipice whilst contemplating an abruptly truncated future.  She was a writer, indeed, she was ‘the next big thing,’ until life went wrong, and her keyboard fell silent. Into her crisis steps teenage, vulnerable, and artistically talented Declan (Angus Taylor). A Pygmalion-esque partnership promptly blooms; a symbiotic, and affectionate association which breathes new life into the jaded mentor, and offers hope for a better one to her pupil.

Libby, perhaps inevitably, takes up her long silent (figurative) quill, and begins a new play; it’s about Declan, only, you know, fictionalised. The marble is placed atop the helter-skelter; it starts with empathy, and ends with exploitation. The protagonists start with the best of intentions, but that road has only one destination.

Hurley, mindful of his own ironic predicament, has his quasi-avatar, Libby, break the fourth wall periodically to narrate the play’s technical progress. If there’s no way to quite escape the cult, at least we can participate in our onanistic pursuit of empathetic ‘relief’ knowingly.

Images courtesy of Lara Cappelli

The piece is consistently excellent, and for long passages, unremittingly brilliant. The dialogue flows naturally, and captures both protagonists’ voices with inherent authenticity. The central relationship completely captures the audience’s sympathies. It’s a true testament to the strength of the piece that we remain invested, despite Libby’s overt narrative signposting of the fates awaiting them.

This is a testament both to the quality of the writing, and the strength the two exceptional leads’ stagecraft.

MacDonald gives an assured performance, slipping on the mantle of disillusioned, conflicted writer without hint of stereotype. Taylor is completely charming, and utterly heart-breaking in equal measure.

If I had one note, it might be that, come the admirably catastrophic finale, our troubled, and morally compromised playwright displays a surprisingly melodramatic disregard for realism. I might suggest that there would be no loss of gravitas or message, were she to think more like Irvine Welsh, and less like Stephen King. The play, nevertheless, finishes very strongly, and leaves, in its wake, an emotionally drained, and thoroughly entertained audience.

Maybe the spectre of Timothy S. Mayer was even watching from the wings, summoned by this rite of we, worthies of Edinburgh, the local branch of the ” Cult of Social Theatre.” If, when leaving the Traverse, we paused, even for a brief moment, to question the morality of our being so entertained, perhaps that ghostly critic graced us with the smallest of approving nods.

Or then again … probably not. In fact, if you happen to attend this fabulous play over the next week, do pin back your ears as you depart. Maybe, a stiny, disembodied voice will be shouting, “And what, precisely, has this changed?”

I heartily recommend you to see Mouthpiece, it’s a grand piece of contemporary, thoughtful, Scottish theatre; it deserves every success.

You can catch Mouthpiece at the Traverse Theatre, until 15 February 2020. Tickets and more information can be found at:

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