Theatre review: The Sash

Stewart Porter in Hector MacMillan's The Sash . Picture: submitted

Stewart Porter in Hector MacMillan's The Sash . Picture: submitted

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SECTARIANISM in Scotland: it’s a long story, not over yet. And if theatre is an artform made to allow communities to act out their deepest conflicts and tensions in a safe space, then there is no richer subject for Scottish drama than the nexus of half-remembered history, fading faith and fierce tribal identity that hangs around the old division between Catholics and Protestants.

The Sash

Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy

***

The Sweet Silver Song Of The Lark

Oran Mor, Glasgow

****

The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish

Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

****

So Hector MacMillan’s great family drama The Sash, first seen in 1973, should be – at many levels – a play for today, as well as a record of an old working-class way of life. Structured along strong, simple, classical lines, the play is set over three or four hours in the Glasgow tenement living room of a roaring old Orangeman called Bill McWilliam. The day is 12 July, when all the Orange bands and lodges of the west of Scotland converge on Glasgow; and the recently widowed Bill is looking out his best suit and sash, and preparing to go on the Walk, with or without the support of his long-haired son Cameron, who increasingly rejects his Orange heritage.

Out of this basic family conflict, MacMillan spins a fine, forceful two-hour drama, in which Bill’s staunch Orange loyalty is supported by young Georgina, the mini-kilt-wearing girl-next-door, while Cameron is increasingly drawn to Una, the heavily pregnant niece of Bill’s much-detested Catholic downstairs neighbour.

Michael Emans’s careful, conscientious new production for Rapture Theatre Company – now at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh – lays all this before us with energy and respect; it features a poignant and passionate central performance from Stewart Porter as Bill, and a heart-stopping one from 
Ashley Smith as Una. What it largely fails to do, though – either through the texture of the acting, or the look and mood of the production – is 
bridge the awkward 40-year gap between Bill MacWilliam’s world and our own.

The threads of connection are there, no question. They’re in the debate about how we define the word “Scottish”, in the toxic “double victim” character of the conflict, and in MacMillan’s razor-sharp perception of how an unjust culture of domination always leaves those who cling to it deluded and vulnerable. Yet this production, for all its vivid qualities, leaves the play looking like a period piece, aesthetically and politically; and MacMillan, I think, deserves slightly better than that.

For a short, thrilling companion-piece to The Sash – in its vivid contemporary insight into the power of the tribe – theatre fans should hurry along, this week, to the current lunchtime A Play, A Pie and A Pint show at Oran Mor, a new 55-minute stage poem by the Glasgow-based, Liverpool-born theatre-maker Molly Taylor. The Sweet Silver Song Of The Lark is not a well-made monologue to match Taylor’s stunning 2011 piece, Love Letters To The Public Transport System; it seems more like a strange poetic lecture for three voices, about the experience of being a fan of Liverpool Football Club. Yet thanks to three wonderfully passionate and direct performances – from Benny Young, Michael Ryan, and Taylor herself – it slices straight to the heart of the strange power and pull of the crowd, the magic that generates great football songs out of a kind of mass creativity, and the mighty, tingling energy that rises from a stadium of fans in full cry. What Taylor is really working on – in our intensely individualistic age – is an exploration of the power of the collective, and what still draws us to it, despite ourselves; and as even her nine-year-old self understands, there’s no better place to study that than Anfield, on the day of a big match.

If an interest in the tribe beyond the home begins to kick in with pre-adolescence, though, for younger children politics is all about the family; and there’s a brilliant, vivid variation on that basic truth in the National Theatre Of Scotland’s new children’s show The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish, which arrives at the Imaginate Festival in Edinburgh next week. Based on a story by Neil Gaiman – adapted by director Lu Kemp and writer Abigail Docherty, for this promenade performance – the show leads the audience, physically and emotionally, through the journey on which Neil and his Little Sis set out, after Neil impulsively swaps their silent, newspaper-reading Dad for two goldfish, and their Mum insists that they swap him back again.

The story is on the slight side, based on a simple series-of-swaps format. Along the way, though, Lu Kemp’s richly inventive NTS company have a huge amount of fun with sets and music, jokes and arguments, and the evolving relationship between Neil and his little sister. MJ McCarthy’s simple rap songs work brilliantly as marching music, as we parade along corridors and up and down stairs; Laurie Brown and Veronica Leer turn in a fine pair of performances as Neil and Sis. And after the show, there’s a swap-shop where young audience members can do a bit of trading themselves; although none of them, strangely enough, seem to want to swap their Dads, even for a pair of My Little Ponies, or a new book by Neil Gaiman.

• The Sash is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday, and on tour until 1 June. The Sweet Silver Song Of The Lark is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 4 May. The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish is at Howden Park, Livingston, until 5 May, at the National Museum Of Scotland, Edinburgh, from 8-11 May, and on tour until 1 June.

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