IT'S half past six on a chill February evening in Aberdeen, and a new era in Scottish theatre begins not with a bang, but with the familiar rattle of a small hopper bus, carrying an audience of excited theatregoers out to the edge of the city. Waiting for us in the Middlefield estate are 20 actors, young and old, professional and community; and six unoccupied flats on the same low-rise staircase, each with a nameplate on the door featuring the word "Home".
For "Home" was the theme chosen by the National Theatre of Scotland for its unique launch event, featuring ten site-specific shows in ten locations all over Scotland. In Aberdeen, director Alison Peebles and writer Rona Munro - together with designer Martin McNee - put together a vivid, edgy, and moving meditation, in six flats and ten parts, on what "home" means today. To the left, as we crowded into the cold staircase, a door was labelled "home is where the heart is"; behind it, in a room full of old photographs and nostalgic decor, an old lady was living out a life of crushing loneliness, haunted by the ghosts of her long-gone family. In the top flat, an ageing fisherman thrown on the economic scrapheap wondered who was suffering the more painful slide towards extinction - himself, or the cod he once fished. What the Aberdeen show achieved was a bringing-together of all the strands of meaning in the word "home", from nostalgia to the quest for new places to call our own.
Across the rest of Scotland, it was as if different aspects of the theme slid in and out of focus, although never again in a show quite so rich in texture, and so clearly and confidently theatrical. In Shetland, in a beautifully finished installation show staged aboard the Northlink Ferry by director Wils Wilson, a haunting poetic text by Jackie Kay - delivered through personal guided-tour handsets - led us through a story of deeply-buried female experience, and of the perennial island tension between leaving and staying, as ghostly actors dressed in 1940s or 50s costume drifted through the lounges and saloons of the ship. There was 1940s nostalgia in Dundee too, as director Kenny Miller decked out the hallway of the McManus Gallery in the glamorous glitter-ball pink and black of a wartime ballroom; although here almost nothing happened in terms of live theatre, as the audience sat passively watching a history film of humorous old Dundonians remembering their wartime youth.
In this context, Anthony Neilson's short, sharp Edinburgh show - a surreal 35-minute session of the Scottish Parliament, written by seven primary-school children - came as a welcome shift of tone, a show which seemed genuinely more interested in our crazy present and possible futures than in the past.
The problem, though, was that for local Edinburgh audiences seeing only this show, the piece was too short, slight and daft to look like the launch of anything substantial. It was also a drastic underuse of the talents of a stellar cast, including Dawn Steele, Joe McFadden, Tam Dean Burn and Daniela Nardini.
Nor was there much nostalgia in the high flats at Cranhill in Glasgow, where director John Tiffany told the ultra-dramatic story of hero Murdo's return from London to his old high-rise home, where his 17-year-old brother Tam is under surveillance by the state. The brilliance of Tiffany's concept was to combine live theatre - faces in windows, dark figures abseiling down the building - with intimate screen drama, transmitted live from inside the flats via surveillance cameras held to the windows by the abseilers in black. The script was often weak, but something about Tam's quest for a reunion with his dead Dad - a victim of Gulf War syndrome - touched the heart; and all six professional performers on camera, led by Billy Boyd, Blythe Duff, and Colette O'Neil,
acted their hearts out.
So is it possible to draw up a tentative balance sheet for the achievement of the National Theatre's first event? On the downside, I would say - on the evidence of the five shows I saw - that it has been a shade too artistically uneven for comfort; and sometimes, too, ominously short of faith in the power of live theatre, as opposed to the screen images on which many shows depended.
On the upside, though, the new company has achieved a dazzling geographical reach, and a real sense of connection with local communities that has both enabled those communities to re-examine their own story, and given them a new voice on the national stage. It's been a start, in other words; and, taken as a whole, a brave and imaginative one, designed to smash and rearrange many hostile Scottish preconceptions about theatre. But there are still many miles to travel before Scotland can begin to take this long-neglected art-form back into its heart, and into its sense of what home is, and what it might become.
Perfect place for your inner child to live
REMEMBER what it felt like when you were eight and you visited the house of a friend who had just been given an amazing new toy? That's what it felt like being at Home Stornoway.
For the past four weeks, director Stewart Laing and his team have been hard at work building an exquisite doll's house in an empty shop in the town centre.
The show they wove around it - an intimate affair for about 20 people at a time - consisted of a guided tour of its various, detachable rooms. Laing gave a commentary in English and the sprightly Phil MacHugh did the honours in Gaelic.
The lounge, made by local artist Moira Maclean, was inspired by her habit of visiting abandoned crofts and filming their interiors. As Maclean shone a tiny torch around her creation, Laing explained that she made her "outlawish" missions in darkness.
In Marc Hardy's swish, birch-panelled kitchen, Harry Potter sat down to dinner with George Galloway and the White Witch (the only person from Narnia who could make it along) while in the bathroom - modelled on Laing's own - the director took us through his Sunday afternoon bathing ritual.
Laing and MacDonald put on surgical gloves to investigate Will Holt's clinically-lit hallway, where a murder appeared to have taken place; an amateur archaeological dig was in progress in Simon Daw's cellar; while in Minty Donald's bedroom, a dream sequence was projected on to the walls to a hypnotic soundtrack by Paddy Cuneen.
It was enough to bring out the wide-eyed child in even the most jaded cynic.