Joyce McMillan: Embracing pop culture on stage

Doris, Dolly and a Wee Bit More at Oran Mor. Picture: Contributed

Doris, Dolly and a Wee Bit More at Oran Mor. Picture: Contributed

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IT’S almost ten o’clock on a Sunday night at Oran Mor in Byres Road; but there’s no sign that anyone wants to stop partying.

During the day this space plays host to Oran Mor’s Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime theatre. Sometimes, though, you can also catch an evening show here; and tonight, the four women taking a well-earned bow – while the audience joins in a standing ovation – are Gail Watson, Frances Thorburn, Clare Waugh, and musical director Hilary Brooks, the cast of Doris & Dolly And A Wee Bit More, a witty and sometimes thought-provoking miniature tribute show that has just taken us on a whistle-stop singalong tour of defining moments in the lives of Doris Day, Dolly Parton, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, and a hilariously rude Julie Andrews.

As the cast take their bows, though, there’s no sign of the woman behind the show, writer and director Morag Fullarton.

There’s plenty to be learned about the story of popular theatre in Scotland by loooking at Morag Fullarton’s 40-year career, which began at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music And Drama in the mid-1970s. From 1978 to 1990, Fullarton was artistic director of Borderline Theatre Company, based in Ayr, working alongside the other great radical theatre-makers of the day, including John McGrath and David MacLennan, to create popular touring theatre that would speak to ordinary people all over Scotland, and employing actors like Alex Norton, Bill Paterson, Billy Connolly, and a young Alan Cumming.

After Borderline, Fullarton saw what she calls “the writing on the wall” for arts council funding and moved into television, working as a director on series like That’s Life, Cardiac Arrest and The Grand; she still has a thriving television career today. And in the last few years, A Play, A Pie And A Pint has drawn her back into theatre. She directed its smash-hit short stage version of Casablanca; and before Doris & Dolly, Oran Mor’s owner-impresario Colin Beattie had already conjured up a terrific hit for the venue by asking Fullarton to write and direct her successful 2010 tribute show, A Bottle Of Wine And Patsy Cline.

So why don’t we see Fullarton directing shows on Scotland’s main stages? Perhaps we soon will; the National Theatre of Scotland’s director Laurie Sansom was in the Oran Mor crowd last Sunday night, singing along to Somewhere Over The Rainbow with the best of us.

The truth is, though, that Fullarton represents a tradition of practical, unpretentious, often female-inflected popular theatre that has been slightly out of fashion, these last 20 years, and that also dares, these days, to dabble in the realms of the pastiche and the small-scale tribute show, sometimes viewed with scorn by serious students of theatre. “For me, theatre has always been about making that vital, direct connection with the audience; that’s our Scottish tradition of performance, after all, and without it nothing happens,” says Fullarton.

“And yes, today that often means that you are working with the music and the movies everyone loves, that make up our common culture. But I love those films and songs so much that that never seems like a problem; and to see how the audience love them too, and join in with the performance, and learn a bit, too, along the way – well, that makes me very, very happy.”

• Doris, Dolly And A Wee Bit More will be at Assembly as part of the Edinburgh Fringe later this year

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