It’s 1935 and in Dust Bowl America, Myra Collins, a fortune teller with a travelling circus, plies her trade. She has no supernatural gifts, but she looks the part and has the necessary showmanship. And anyway, all anyone wants is a little hope – and that she can provide.
This solo play is written and performed by Lucy Roslyn, and she inhabits the role from the very top of the peacock feather perched in her turban, to the bottom of the jewelled robe she has draped around her. Sitting in her chair, with a small crowded table of cards, candles and the paraphernalia of her trade, Myra Collins holds court – moving her head around catching the eye of many in her audience. And while she may trash her rivals, she is disparaging about her own past too, never claiming to be anything that she is not.
In 1935 America was in the depths of the Great Depression and, just to make matters worse, the crops from the Breadbasket states had catastrophically failed as the land turned to dust. To the people trapped in these areas it must have felt like the end of the world. Roslyn has capitalised on this historical story; the atmosphere she creates as Collins is one of uncertainty and anger at these man-made disasters, the old as well as the new. Collins is as vulnerable as everyone else to these fears – but she does offer hope, whether it be from redemption and forgiveness or just the promise of better days to come.
Showmanship is not ritzy or glamorous, deliberately belying its name. Instead, it’s a meandering examination on the state of America, and the gradual unfolding of the great tragedy of Collins’ past. Roslyn holds the audience’s attention but the pacing is still awkward; the ending and revelations feel rushed, in stark contrast to the very slow build up. At one point Collins performs a sleight of hand, and there is a neat trick with a candle; it would have been nice if there were more moments like this, as it would have lightened the mood slightly and would not have cheapened the drama.
One of the habits Roslyn gives Collins is to make a clicking noise in the corner of her mouth with a wink. I have to admit that despite the fantastic performance, I found this tic deeply, deeply annoying and very distracting. But I realise that it is, overall, a minor quibble.
The meandering page is more of a problem, and may put you off the narrative. But if you stay with it, Showmanship is an atmospheric journey through the Great Depression, from the jaded point of view of one consumed with grief.