Stars of new Scottish musical on being a band as well as a cast

It is a gloomily grey morning in Glasgow '“ but on the banks of the Forth and Clyde Canal images are being conjured up of far-off adventures framed by crystal-clear waters, deserted beaches and dreamy sunsets.

Adam Ross. Picture: John Devlin
Adam Ross. Picture: John Devlin

Inside a rehearsal room at Rockvilla, the new “engine room for Scottish theatre,” a brand new Scottish musical is swiftly taking shape before my eyes.

The small group of actors stepping in and out of character and switching accents are all wielding musical instruments as they run through the show. There hardly seems time for them to catch their breath between scenes before they have to break into another, oddly-familiar, musical number.

Billed as a “bittersweet tale of heartache, loss, recovery and discovery,” The Isle of Love is also being sold as Scotland’s first ever indie-pop jukebox musical, which is set to cast a whole new light on Scotland’s Hebridean islands as well as showcase one of its rising songwriting talents.

The show, which will embark on a four-week tour after opening this weekend in Inverness, will be set to a soundtrack drawn entirely from the back catalogue of Randolph’s Leap, the seven-piece Glasgow band fronted by Adam Ross.

Almost all of the action in the show unfolds on a fictional island which has drawn a disparate group of characters to its shores in search of something – or someone.

Although many of the songs are directly inspired by Ross’s experiences of the Hebrides – including childhood visits to Skye, Mull, Iona, the Uists and Luing – The Isle of Love show was instigated after one of its two writers, Euan Martin, heard the song which was to provide the show’s title on the radio on a late-night car journey home.

Its promise of a distant paradise offering the chance to “get away from the noise and chatter and reconnect with the things that matter” had Martin hooked right away on the idea of a show set on an island with the power to ease the “stress and strain” of everyday life.

After three years in development, The Isle of Love is finally set to see the light of day, while Ross has been persuaded to star in the show he has created with Martin and regular collaborator Dave Smith.

Theatre company, Right Lines, has already enjoyed success with shows set at a Highland wedding, a ceilidh dance and a flood-hit village hall, as well as a play about the race to secure a super-rare malt whisky and another inspired by the antics of the Naked Rambler.

Its track record has helped win the backing of national arts agency Creative Scotland to take The Isle of Love out on tour across the country, including Aberdeenshire, Moray, Dumfriesshire and Perthshire, as well as island dates in Skye, Lewis and Harris.

At least 20 songs drawn from Randolph’s Leap back catalogue are due to feature in the final production, which Martin says will explore the “beauty and healing qualities of island life.”

However the show is also set to mark a departure from the company’s usual feel-good stage shows, with The Isle of Love’s characters dealing with the aftermath of domestic abuse, a failing marriage, loneliness, stress and depression when they arrive on the island.

Martin explains: “All the characters are on their own personal journeys. The island is a constant, but it is also a catalyst assisting each character to confront their circumstances and arrive at a better place.

“At a time when mental health issues are very much in sharp focus, one of the themes of the show is the positive impact of people and place when folk are dealing with the stress and strain of everyday life.

“The narrative nature of Adam’s lyrics allowed us to work the songs into the storyline of each character.

“They are a reflection of the characters’ emotions and add tone and mood rather than directly progress the storyline as you might find in a more traditional musical.”

Ross had to get special approval for time away from his day job as an RSPB officer in Aberdeenshire – where he is currently leading a dolphin watch project – to take part in the show, which he has been involved in since Martin and Smith came to see his band play on their home turf in Glasgow – and pitched the idea of turning some of their best-known material into a stage show.

Ross says: “Quite a few songs are actually inspired by the Hebrides. A strong theme running through a few of our albums is city versus countryside and the pros and cons of each. When I think of being out of the city it’s quite often places like the Hebrides where I feel I would rather be.

“I had lots of holidays there when I was growing up. I love the wildness of it, the uniqueness of the landscapes, the smells, the sounds, the sights. They are peaceful, but exciting places.”

Apart from a brief prelude scene set in Glasgow six months before the main events, The Isle of Love largely unfolds over the space of a week and focuses on a set of characters who arrive off the ferry at the same time.

Director Mark Saunders says: “There are several different narratives in this show.

“The island is almost a holding place for these stories and it becomes a very significant place for the characters who arrive there. They are people looking for different answers and ways of sorting themselves out.”

Ross, who says he is “pretty much playing myself” in the show, is one of six performers, along with musical director John Kielty, Kevin Lennon, Amy McGregor, Deborah Arnott and Ross Allan.

Ross says: “The show paints the islands in a positive light, but they’re not entirely romanticised.

“The story isn’t really about the island. It focuses more on the people who have arrived there – people who are quite detached from the resident community. The story is more about them finding their own place.”

Lennon plays one of the locals, “The Old Man of the Island,” as well as Alan, who has arrived after a difficult relationship break-up.

He says: “My character has come to the island at a bit of a crisis point in his life. He is a bit stuck, he is feeling depressed and has reached an impasse.

“The Old Man represents the spirit of the island. He has wisdom to impart to everyone who has come there.”

Allan plays Bob, who has brought his wife Amy to the island in the hope of reviving their stale relationship.

He says: “They have never been to the island before. They’ve never done anything like this before. Bob has been getting pressure from his wife to be a bit more adventurous. He has taken that quite literally. He has taken her to live almost as off-grid as they possibly can.”

Saunders adds: “We get little snapshots of their lives punctuated by these wonderful songs, which reflect the feelings of the characters and their various situations.

“The lyrics have actually hardly been changed at all – the songs have only been slightly rearranged to suit the musical skills of the various performers.”

Allan adds: “I don’t really think of it as a musical – I like to call it gig theatre myself. We’re all playing instruments and singing. We’re a band as well as a cast.”

Ross, who will be performing with the full Randolph’s Leap line-up after the show in Glasgow on 9 June, says: “The whole project has been great so far. I’ve been really impressed at how quickly things have evolved since we started rehearsing, the way the cast have learned the lyrics and their lines, and also the way they have pulled the emotion out of scenes.

“It’s been really rewarding and gratifying to see the songs take on a new life.”

The Isle of Love opens in Inverness tonight and is on tour around Scotland until 16 June, for tickets see