“They wait a long time for the panda worth climbing out of the tree for.”
So says mildly neurotic entymologist Madeleine (Meg Fraser), explaining the mating habits of the Chinese bears to Edinburgh police detective James (Phil McKee) in Pandas, Rona Munro’s entertaining romantic comedy thriller at the Traverse, directed by Rebecca Gatward.
And, like the iconic black & white animals of the title, so Munro’s characters spend the play’s enjoyable two hours waiting for just the right moment – and person – worth coming down from their perches for.
James and his frustrated wife Julie (Vicki Liddelle) are on the brink of divorce; Madeleine and dodgy dealer Andy (Keith Fleming) split up 18 months ago. And Jie Hui (Siu Hun Li) and Lin Han (Crystal Hu) are spending their first date underneath the cherry blossom of Edinburgh’s Meadows, meeting for the first time in the flesh after having exchanged ‘536 emails and 72 jpegs’.
When Andy’s latest business deal – importing ‘beautifully marketable’ Chinese rugs made by Lin Han’s family – goes disastrously wrong, all six characters are thrown together into a mischievously dark comedy of errors, allowing Munro to play around with exploring which side of the coin each of them will choose: love or money.
Pandas is a delight, paced by Gatward with movie-like direction on a well-realised stage designed by Liz Cooke. Munro’s script inhabits the same kind of territory in which Martin McDonagh lurks: darkly comic, realistically ridiculous and tangled tightly in a web of human relationships.
Complementing the writing are the equally sharp performances. Crystal Hu’s brutally matter-of-fact Lin Han is excellent, the actress slowly shedding her seemingly cold demeanour like the cherry trees drop their blossom. Fleming’s turn as the lovable rogue Andy also entertains, particularly when he expresses his character’s softer side in the play’s second half.
But the standout performance has to be Meg Fraser’s Madeleine. With a manic glee, she ranges from aroused sexual fantasy to blistering spite and anger as she jumps into Madeleine’s character with expertly-timed relish. During one segment, where she is left alone in a police interrogation room and records her innermost thoughts and desires into the tape recorder, her performance veers into stand-up comic territory, but is certainly no worse for the fact.
As the strands of the plot slowly weave together like threads from one of Li Han’s rugs, Pandas – receiving its world premiere at the Traverse – shows Munro’s skill as a comic writer; and that of the cast, as their characters slowly weigh each other up before eventually choosing their mates.
Pandas runs until 7 May at The Traverse. Details are available on their website.