FRINGE REVIEW – Alan Bissett: The Red Hourglass


If you’re afraid of spiders, this show might give you nightmares. Even if you’re not it will make your flesh crawl from time to time, such is the subtle power of Alan Bissett’s writing and performance.

Bissett plays a variety of arachnids held captive in a tank at a research facility. Expect no embarrassing attempts to look like a spider, there are no extra limbs or eyes on show. Instead, under Sacha Kyle’s skilful direction, Bissett distils his non-human characters down to their essential characteristics, both in terms of personality and physicality.

His house spider (don’t call him a common spider) gets the hour off to a cracking start, confiding that spiders only move that way to wind us up and delivering a brilliant inversion of the classic spider-related story of Robert the Bruce. Bissett then moves through a variety of other characters, including a neurotic, family-focused Brown Recluse, and a proud and macho Latin tarantula.

However, it is his sensual, self-loathing Black Widow who is the true highlight of the show. Not only is her monologue spectacularly well-written, Bissett makes a wonderfully unlikely transformation into a literally captivating beauty. All poise and stillness and devastating drawl, this lady is the epitome of Southern Gothic. It’s an unsettlingly strong performance.

Unfortunately, she’s a hard act to follow. The scenes that come after her appearance are not quite as taut as their forerunners. They are entertaining, but they’re not as intricately crafted. That said, the ending offers some chillingly plausible ideas about the reason for the spiders being in the research facility in the first place, and even at its weakest points this is a great show.

It’s a mark of Bissett’s skill that he can send his audience home having learned a huge amount about spiders but without ever feeling that they’ve been lectured. His research has obviously been extensive, but he’s a clever enough writer to make sure that his points are never laboured but worked seamlessly into the monologues.

If you love good writing and deft, light direction, go and see this show. And anything else that Alan Bissett writes – he is clearly an artist to watch.

Alan Bissett: The Red Hourglass is at the National Library of Scotland from 15 – 25 August, 19.00 (1 hour).

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