Theatre review: The Tin Forest, Glasgow

The South Rotunda. Picture: JP
The South Rotunda. Picture: JP
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IT BEGINS with a scene of devastation and bleakness. “There was once a wide, windswept place, near nowhere and close to forgotten,” says the opening sentence of Helen Ward and Wayne Anderson’s much-loved children’s book The Tin Forest, “that was filled with all the things that no-one wanted.”

The Tin Forest

SOUTH ROTUNDA, GLASGOW

* * * *

Endrance

* * *

News Just In

* *

THE ARCHES, GLASGOW

The story goes on to tell how the old man who lives in the middle of this wasteland starts to build a forest out of the junk around him, and about the magic that brings the forest to life; and it must be more than half a decade, now, since the former National Theatre of Scotland director Vicky Featherstone first began to wonder whether this story might work as a metaphor for some aspects of Glasgow’s story, over the last 30 years.

So it’s strangely – almost uncannily – fitting that the NTS’s huge Tin Forest project has reached its climax in this strange and glorious week for Glasgow, with the Commonwealth Games in full swing, and the new riverside city around the main project venue at the South Rotunda glittering in tropical sunshine.

The climactic “puppet theatre experience” itself – directed and designed by the NTS’s Graham McLaren – is both slightly flawed and immensely beautiful. In groups of six or seven, the audience is led into the labyrinthine lower level of the Rotunda, where we walk through a series of scenes – all with a faint atmosphere of the late-Victorian period when the Clyde tunnel Rotundas were built – that draw us into the story of the old man, represented by a superb puppet figure. We enter his little house with its bleak view of the wasteland, we see the workshop where he struggles to build a bird that will fly, we pass through a little series of fairground-style story-tableaux, and we reach the moment when the little house is suddenly surrounded by seething new green life.

And at that point, the show seems to run out of inspiration. Instead of coming up into the main space of the rotunda to find some lush and thrilling Dear Green Place, we see a pallid projected view of the Hebrides, and the Tin Forest team of musicians – led by Annie Grace and Gav Prentice – singing and chatting their way through a familiar programme of Glasgow songs put together by musical director Michael John McCarthy. The music needs sharper direction, and the visual imagery doesn’t match the story. Yet even with this less-than-intense conclusion, The Tin Forest remains a memorable experience, in a remarkable building. The last piece in the jigsaw, perhaps, for Glasgow’s long story of post-industrial regeneration.

In a city full of Games-related cultural events, meanwhile, the Arches’ show Endurance stands out for the sheer strength of its raw and heartfelt commitment to its subject. Created by The Women’s Creative Company and A Moment’s Peace, the show brings together a comunity company of 17 women performer-researchers, who bring us the history of women’s participation in the Commonwealth Games.

In a sense, this 80-minute show feels both too long for the single powerful message it conveys about negative and sexist attitudes to women in sport, and too short to tell us the full story of the many fascinating and impressive women it mentions. Yet the energy, poise, passion and occasional anger of the women is unforgettable and deeply impressive.

Later in the evening at the Arches, a huge and glittering team of writers and performers is involved in the creation of News Just In, a show which aims to provide a freshly-written satirical perspective on the whole business of Glasgow 2014 every night from now until 2 August. The show is played out on the sparking green-and purple set of an angst-ridden Scottish current affairs television show called Tartan Tonight, and features some impressively lurid design by Lisa Sangster, as well as a potentially riveting pair of lead performances from Jordan Young and Julie Brown as the show’s two daggers-drawn presenters.

What we mainly learned from the opening News Just In show, though, is that none of this matters if you don’t have a real satirical writer.

As principal writer for the first episode, all the exceptionally gifted Johnny McKnight seemed able to serve up was a few tired jokes about the television industry, larded with a strain of unfunny obscenity that made me gasp at its sheer ugly pointlessness. News Just In will be a better show on other nights, of course. Yet satire is a special skill and with vital political jokery like Lady Alba’s Bad Romance circulating on the internet, Scottish theatre needs to raise its satirical game well above this level, and fast.

Seen on 22-24.08.14

l The Tin Forest until 3 August; Endurance until tomorrow; News Just In until 2 August