Scots: A musical history of Scotland in 50 minutes

For their new musical, Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie are tackling some lesser-known figures from Scotland’s past, writes Joyce McMillan

Scott Gilmour and Claire Mackenzie
Scott Gilmour and Claire Mackenzie

In some parts of the Scottish theatre world, the spring season of 2022 has been a slightly subdued one, with some theatregoers still hesitant about returning to live performance, and several companies involved in major building projects that consume huge amounts of time and energy.

Not so at Oran Mor in Glasgow, though, where the Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime theatre founded by the late David MacLennan back in 2004 has been roaring on from strength to strength, through Jemima Levick’s first full Spring Season as artistic director. This season has featured a hugely vivid series of 20 new plays – one each week since February, six of them also seen at the Traverse in Edinburgh – showcasing the work of leading Scottish playwrights including Peter McDougall, Rob Drummond, DC Jackson, Douglas Maxwell and David Ireland, alongside rising stars such as Dani Heron, Isla Cowan, Belle Jones and Maryam Hamidi.

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And if many of the plays have dealt with serious and hard-hitting themes – from the terrible impact of dementia to the pain of the current refugee crisis – there has also been plenty of much-needed laughter; a trend that is set to continue in next week’s final show of the season, when Scottish musical-writing duo Noisemaker unveil a 50-minute history of Scotland – called simply Scots – that promises to pull no punches in sending up the more absurd and gloomy aspects of our national story.

“We’ve had a strong working relationship with Jemima Levick since soon after we formed the company,” says actor, singer and writer Scott Gilmour, who set up Noisemaker with composer and musical director Claire McKenzie back in 2012, after they met at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. “And when she asked us to write something upbeat and funny about the story of Scotland, to round off this season, we were just delighted.

“We’re definitely not taking a very conventional approach to the subject; for example, we’re highlighting some relatively little-known figures in Scottish history, including the first king of Scotland, Kenneth McAlpin, and Mary Somerville, the great 19th century mathematician who grew up in Fife. And if our version of Scotland’s history is political, then it’s definitely political with a small p; we’re exploring what makes our country a country, while acknowledging that our identity is hard to define, and that that’s no bad thing.”

Gilmour and Mackenzie have always worked separately as well as together. Gilmour, for example, played and sang the role of the youngest soldier shot at dawn for desertion in the National Theatre of Scotland and Perth Theatre’s unforgettable 2016 production The 306: Dawn; McKenzie was a trainee at the Citizens’ Theatre for two years after she completed her RCS masters, composing and directing the music for a memorable production of Cinderella, among other shows.

Noisemaker’s joint creative journey, though, began a decade ago, with Gilmour and McKenzie writing and staging several small-scale Fringe musicals – their debut show Freakshow, Forest Boy, The Girl Who – which rapidly gained them recognition in the transatlantic world of musical theatre, with Forest Boy winning a Walt Disney award for New Voices in musical writing.

In 2016, when Levick was joint artistic director of Dundee Rep, she invited Noisemaker to Dundee to create Little Red, a powerful Easter show for children; and Noisemaker’s relationship with the Rep has continued, taking in several Christmas shows and their 2019 musical about that great Dundee character Oor Wullie, which toured UK-wide. They also worked with the National Theatre of Scotland and Birds Of Paradise on their 2018 musical comedy hit My Left Right Foot, and have continued to develop strong transatlantic links, returning to the US in 2019 for a seven-week residency with the American Musical Theatre Project in Chicago.

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“It’s been a very busy ten years,” says McKenzie, “and by the time the pandemic hit, it had become a bit of a treadmill, albeit a very positive one. During lockdown, though, there was time to reflect, and I think in future we’ll be a little more selective about what we do. We first started to work together because we were chums and colleagues who tended to like the same things in musical theatre, and that’s how it has stayed – both of us love a strong story, told through musical theatre.

“And I would also say that over these ten years, we’ve begun to see a big increase of support for the idea of making musicals in Scotland. When we first started out, we would slightly apologise for what we did, and say “oh, it’s just a play with songs.” But now, there’s a lot of enthusiasm and encouragement for musicals in Scotland, and plenty of other artists writing them, too.”

During lockdown, Gilmour and McKenzie became involved in creating an audio piece called Atlantic, for podcast producers Big Light, about the story of the island of St Kilda; and Gilmour feels that the experience has unleashed a Scottish strand to their music that has stood them in good stead, in creating Scots for A Play, A Pie And A Pint.

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“We’ve always had a pretty eclectic musical style until now,” says Gilmour. “But now, we’ve found ourselves working on Atlantic, and then on this current show, and we’re also developing a show called Ceilidh, with our producer in New York; and I feel, like Claire, that we’re beginning to refine things a bit, discard a few things, and develop a more distinctive voice.

“It’s as if the lockdown experience brought us back to the basics of why we wanted to work together in the first place, and that felt very good. And now, we’re setting off with a clearer focus, and a new sense of energy, into the next phase of what we want to create together, both across the Atlantic, and here in Scotland.”

Scots is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, from 27 June until 2 July,