With the Devil’s Assistance review – shape-shifting woman links past and present | Edinburgh festival 2022

As we see all the time in pop music, good things happen when styles collide. Perhaps there have been others before her, but Shona Cowie is the first performer I have seen to fuse traditional storytelling with the physical theatre techniques of Jacques Lecoq.

On the one hand, hers is a once-upon-a-time world of superstition and creepy events; on the other, it involves a high-precision gestural technique that gives shape to every thought. She takes us to a 17th-century tale of Ayrshire witchcraft even as she makes use of PowerPoint presentations and improvised music.

It is a fertile approach, one that gives a current edge to the story-book narrative. That is important because With the Devil’s Assistance is rather less about supernatural powers than it is about entrepreneurial women. It is to do with women’s marginalisation and repression – something reflected in the vast preponderance of women on her list of those executed for witchcraft around her native Ayr.

The first surprise is that a show about Maggie Osborne, supposedly burned at the stake for indulging in the dark arts, begins with a lesson on Britain’s declining high streets. Chatting chirpily to the audience – even recording their responses – Cowie shows pictures of boarded-up shopfronts, closed metal shutters and lifeless town centres as she sounds the alarm bell for economic collapse.

The connection she makes to the ghoulish past is via Marks & Spencer in modern-day Ayr. It is, she amusingly suggests, just the kind of shop Maggie Osborne would have loved. More to the point, it is on the site of an inn known as Maggie Osborne’s House, which, legend has it, this shape-shifting woman erected in a single night with the help of the devil.

Adopting the tone of the traditional storyteller, accompanied by accordionist, singer and pianist Neil Sutcliffe, she nonetheless defies convention by highlighting the mix of hearsay, suspicion and unsubstantiated evidence that could be enough to convict a woman whose real crime, she suggests, was not to use hidden powers to set off a fatal avalanche, but to brew her own ale and run a successful business. In a show that slips confidently from light to creepy shade, Cowie makes unexpected connections between past and present.

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