It was in May 2017, at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, that Douglas Maxwell’s exquisite play Charlie Sonata shot briefly and brilliantly across the landscape of Scottish theatre, only to vanish again within a couple of weeks. Directed by Matthew Lenton of Vanishing Point, the play emerged as a rare and breathtaking two-hour stage symphony full of dream-like fantasy, but also of the sweet, sad music of ordinary life.
And there at the centre of it – as of so many of the greatest Scottish theatre shows of the last 15 years – was Sandy Grierson, one of the most acclaimed Scottish stage actors of the new millennium, playing a character so wrecked by drink that his life seems all but worthless; but who still has in him one last mighty gesture of love and self-sacrifice, before he is claimed by the dark.
Grierson was born in Edinburgh in the late 1970s, and grew up in the city. His father, Douglas Grierson, was head weaver at the Dovecot Studios; and his mother, Fiona Mathison, taught tapestry at Edinburgh College of Art. As a child, Sandy was taken all over Scotland to see theatre shows, with his mother encouraging him to take an interest strongly visual theatre with a European perspective; and by the mid-1990s, he was helping out at Richard Demarco’s legendary Fringe venue in York Lane, encountering artists including the great Polish actress Zofia Kalinska, who became a creative mentor and mother-figure to him.
By the time he left school in 1996, Grierson knew he wanted to be an actor; and he signed up for a course in theatre at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, followed by a months-long workshop with Theatre Du Soleil of Paris, before arriving to study English at Bristol University in 1997. He graduated in 2000, and immediately returned to Scotland, to begin a career that has encompassed an astonishing roll-call of brilliant, challenging and demanding shows, ranging from Communicado’s stage version of Robin Jenkins’s novel Fergus Lamont in 2007, through many shows with Matthew Lenton’s Vanishing Point company (of which he is an associate director), to the Citizens’ Theatre and Edinburgh International Festival’s massive 2015 version of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, in which he played the hero, Duncan Thaw.
Grierson has also worked extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court, and other leading companies outside Scotland, as well as appearing on screen in Outlander and Night People. Today, he lives in London with his wife Leah and their two young children; but theatre made in Scotland with an international dimension remains his first love.
In this extract from Charlie Sonata, specially reworked for the Scotsman Sessions by Grierson and playwright Douglas Maxwell, the central character Charlie visits his best friend Gary’s much-loved stepdaughter Audrey, who is recovering in bed after a teenage drinking binge. Charlie tries to offer her some advice about how to drink more wisely; but the intense emotion and memories unleashed in Charlie, as he tries to help someone about whose future he genuinely cares, foreshadows a much more serious conversation to come in the gradual unfolding of this tragic and magical play, which was written with Grierson in mind, and demonstrates to perfection both his powerful, understated presence as an actor, and the sheer skill with which seizes the whole meaning of a text, and turns it into living, breathing theatre.
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