The Scotsman Sessions #56: Biff Smith

Welcome to The Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts world shutting down for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, Biff Smith of Glasgow-based band A New International performs Let Us Not Speak Of Sin – one of a series of 12 songs he wrote for Vanishing Point’s acclaimed 2019 show Dark Carnival.

When Dark Carnival opened in the big space of Tramway One, in February last year, it was with one of the most memorable and macabre visual images Scottish theatre has ever produced. At the top, in Kenneth MacLeod’s design lit by Simon Wilkinson, was a blue heaven with a door floating in space, and a few bored angels hanging around. In the middle was an everyday scene from an imaginary Glasgow cemetery called Dickinson’s Brae - grass, trees, gravestones, a little sunlight.

The main action, though, was down below, where a black-clad cabaret band and a bunch of slowly crumbling dead folk were to seen emerging nightly from their coffins - wedged in the earth below the gravestones - to swig whisky, sing a few songs, party, reminisce and recriminate, stuck in a subterranean Glasgow limbo until the last memory of their earthly lives fades from the world above, and they “finally, and terminally, disperse,” as the Narrator puts it.

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Written and directed by Matthew Lenton, and co-produced by his company Vanishing Point and the Citizens’ Theatre, Dark Carnival was an astonishing and strangely life-enhancing show, featuring stunning performances from - among others - Ann Louise Ross as Mrs Marks (the Victorian lady whose statue stands at the entrance to the park, and the keeper of the underworld’s whisky supply), Peter Kelly as Old Peter, a living man still grieving the loss of his young gay lover who died 60 years ago, and Olivia Barrowclough as Little Annie, a little recently-dead girl who can make herself visible to the living, and whose efforts to reunite Peter with his lover come to serious grief.

Biff Smith

The key force holding the show together, though - and giving it its unforgettable atmosphere of macabre celebration - was the music of Glasgow-based band An New International, in the shape of a cycle of 12 songs specially written for Dark Carnival by the band’s brilliant leader, singer and accordionist Biff Smith. When the show toured arts centres and village halls across Scotland last summer, in a new short version known as Dark Carnival Unplugged, a programme note described Smith’s music as being “inspired by Weimar Cabaret, dance macabre, Kurt Weill and Lionel Bart”; and its strange mix of melancholy and savagery, deep human understanding and hard-edged realism about death and mortality, makes it the perfect companion to Matthew Lenton’s vision in this show, which strives to reach beyond grief and mourning, into a wild, dark and defiant celebration of human wit and creativity, come what may.

Smith’s songs for the show range from the rousing opening number, Necropolitans, to a final theme song named after the show itself. Here, though - from a cupboard in Partick, but wearing his trademark white face - he sings the sixth song in the cycle, Let Us Not Speak Of Sin, which comes at the moment when little Annie’s mother is grieving at her grave. The song is a cry of anger against those who would judge the lives of others, and of contempt for the self-satisfied angels who, the singer suggests, are “too drunk to fly.”

“Be we blessed or begrudged, may all judges be judged,” he sings. And towards the end, in a verse that combines the new tedium of lockdown with the earthiness of Brecht and the languid spiritual weariness of the Tiger Lillies, he adds, “Heaven ignores me, eternity bores me. We’re damned from afar; and I can’t find the bar.”

The music from Dark Carnival is available at https://anewinternational.bandcamp.com/album/the-dark-carnival Vanishing Point Theatre is at http://www.vanishing-point.org

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