A lonely island, with a bitterly divided community on the point of voting to abandon their home for good. A girl called Eilidh, the only young person remaining on the island, left to care for her grandmother in a decaying community. A whale washed up on the beach, and struggling for life; and a mysterious stranger, Arran, also washed up there, who changes Eilidh’s life, and her sense of the world she lives in.
This is the new musical theatre show Islander, which swept into the Paines Plough Roundabout at Summerhall, during the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, gathering four and five star reviews at every turn. First conceived by director Amy Draper - with a book by Stewart Melton and acclaimed music and lyrics by Fife-born composer Finn Anderson - the show was developed with Mull Theatre and Mull arts organisation Comar in 2018, and toured briefly that autumn.
It was its appearance at Summerhall in August 2019 that propelled it to UK-wide fame, though, and won it a London run at Southwark Playhouse in October last year, with critics heaping praise on Anderson’s remarkable score and soundscape, which combines unaccompanied singing in Scottish traditional style with an astonishing range of sound effects, from whale breath to the rumble of an ill-tempered town meeting, all operated and created by the performers using a simple loop-pedal. Exeunt Magazine described Anderson’s score as “fascinating” and “technically outstanding.” The Stage said that the delivery of Anderson’s “swirling, eddying” music was “stunning, because of the skill with which performers Kirsty Findlay and Bethany Tennick paint their layers of sound”; and the show won the Musical Theatre Review’s award for Best New Musical at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe.
The themes of the show are weighty ones, and in many ways highly contemporary; migration, belonging, civil conflict and environmental crisis all loom large, as Eilidh yearns for escape and mourns for her broken community, and both Eilidh and Arran grieve for the struggling whale. Although the show is a simple two-hander, presented on a stage empty but for microphones and loop-pedal, the two actor-singers play multiple characters, evoking a whole stressed community; and there are moments when dozens of people seem to be present.
Yet despite these intense 21st century themes, the show also has a timeless and mythical quality, drawing on the old Orcadian myth of the fin-folk who inhabit the sea, among other stories; and in this brief sung extract, introducing the cataclysmic row that divides the island between fisher-folk and farmers, we can see and hear Findlay and Tennick beginning to wind their voices together, and to create the “special theatrical magic” that The Guardian found in this show, during last year’s London run.
The show had been scheduled to tour Scotland this autumn; but with those plans currently on hold, producer Helen Milne and the company have released a cast album of the show, now available online. Yet for all the joy of hearing Anderson’s music and Findlay and Tennick’s beautiful voices in album form, the magic of Islander is profoundly about the power of theatre - of music, words, and two superb performers - to conjure whole worlds, and worlds beyond worlds, out of an empty space. At heart, said one reviewer last year, this is a show about “storytelling, and the tales we choose to believe in”; let’s hope that before too long, Scotland can hear those stories told live on stage, once more.
The cast album of Islander is now available via Spotify, iTunes, Amazon and all other online music distributors.
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