‘Salamander’ at VAULT Festival review – Bold but brief storytelling about Scotland’s sex workers


Fresh from a successful Edinburgh Fringe run, Pretty Knickers’ Salamander comes to London’s VAULT Festival with its unflinching tale of the lives of sex workers in 1980’s Scotland – complete with clumsy cabaret, arresting musical numbers and the most terrible, heartbreaking tragedy. Above anything else, its decision to bravely explore such a subject with both daring determination and delicacy is remarkable.

Following a murder in the community, a church becomes the meeting point of a group of sex workers, flustered Christian Jean (Becky Niven), and ‘Prostitute Liaison Officer’ Pat (Claire McCarragher). The camaraderie among the female sex workers is one of amusing Scottish sass and cynicism, soon established in their short introductions.

V (Claire Docherty) is seen as the mother of the group, Candy (Sarah Dingwall) comes across as the bubbliest of the quartet, Roxy (Niamh Kinane) has an initial sharp exterior, while Tiff (Mhairi McCall, one of the play’s writers alongside Cal Ferguson) is far more reserved. All four playfully experiment with the explicit nature of their work and the grating formality of the police service, at first reducing it to a childish after school club as opposed to the community outreach project it is actually meant to be. It’s this contrast which lends itself well to some smart comedy, in comparison to the more exaggerative elements involving fake moustaches and drunken karaoke. A situation evolving Candy and a sandwich bag, for example, requires no further explanation, but is one of the play’s more outlandish, cheekier moments for this reason.

McCall and Ferguson’s script is exceptional, with the former delivering some powerful and stunning spoken word as Tiff (fitting, considering the community has a poetry competition going on around the same time). It makes the piece far more emotive and expressive than simple dialogue, with a flowing rhythm adding a new layer of intensity to Tiff’s traumatic experiences. A closing final number about the perseverance of those in the industry is particularly striking too, well led by guitarist Lewis Lauder.

The challenge is in developing every single character in the one hour running time. Roxy has an endearing conversation with Joan, who has her own internal struggles going on with her husband and her morals (Niven stands out for playing the role with an amusing naivety and hyperbole in a way which doesn’t diminish her conflict), V has a dramatic subplot around child services, and Tiff has her aforementioned trauma. Sadly, in reviewing Candy and Pat’s development, there are only little teasings of a greater subplot on the horizon. Pat talks about almost giving up from the police force in one heart-to-heart with Roxy, but we don’t see that accentuated following Tiff’s injustice. Candy, meanwhile, seems to serve only as comic relief rather than having a story of her own to tell. Then there’s the matter of scenes being relatively short-lived, pulling us out of the moment before feelings as an audience member can easily manifest.

It’s a play which cries out for a longer life. One which springboards off the fringes and fleshes out its characters and subplots across a lengthier running time, making its twists and turns far more impactful; one which has a more established set to work with; and one which gives each scene the space it breathe. Make no mistake, however, that in its current form, Salamander is sensitive, intelligent and achingly affecting.

Salamander is now playing at the VAULT Festival in London until 25 January.

Production Images: Pretty Knickers Productions.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Salamander’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for the this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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