Theatre review: The Stamping Ground, Eden Court, Inverness

Shot through with the powerful music of Runrig, The Stamping Ground is a big show with a huge heart, full of love, wisdom and energy, writes Joyce McMillan

Steven Miller and Neshla Caplan in The Stamping Ground - pic by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Steven Miller and Neshla Caplan in The Stamping Ground - pic by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The Stamping Ground, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness ****

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the formation of Runrig, one of the great generation of bands that helped transform Scotland’s cultural landscape in the last three decades of the 20th century. The band officially disbanded in 2018, with a mighty Last Dance concert at Stirling Castle; but the impact of their music over four decades, from their first album in 1978 to the final one in 2016, is hard to overstate, a story of sustained determination – by songwriters Calum and Rory MacDonald, and other key band members over the years – to produce rock music shaped by the Gaelic-speaking culture of Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, and by the experience of their people.

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It’s therefore both moving and thrilling to see that music celebrated and made flesh in The Stamping Ground, a new musical co-produced by Eden Court Theatre and the Glasgow-based company Raw Material which fully demonstrates how powerfully the vision behind Runrig’s work endures, and how it continues to give a vital and telling voice to a community that perhaps understands more than most about the crisis humankind now faces, and the forces that might heal it.

Written by playwright Morna Young, The Stamping Ground tells the story of Euan and Annie, a couple from the islands who decide to return home from London, after their teenage daughter Fiona is severely bullied at school. Euan is a writer of Highland historical novels, while Annie has dedicated herself to motherhood and home-making; and as they move in temporarily with Euan’s crofter mother, Mary, it soon becomes clear that for Euan at least, his memories of the island as it was 20 years ago are more of a hindrance than a help, when it comes to finding a place in a fast-changing community faced with multiple challenges.

What’s most striking about this story, though, is how the Runrig songs featured in the show – 20 of them, coming fast and full-hearted through the evening – curl themselves around the narrative, their themes of love and loss, transience and endurance, passion for the natural world and yearning for community, perfectly expressing the shifting moods of a story written to fit them like a glove. On Kenneth Macleod’s fine, open set – with pub, kitchen, clifftop and fields swiftly taking shape against the backdrop of an old Celtic standing stone – there are moments of community and celebration, featuring songs like The Stamping Ground and And We’ll Sing; but there’s also the haunting sorrow of All Things Must Change, from the 1999 album In Search Of Angels, which becomes the show’s anthem, as Annie and Euan’s relationship founders, and the community struggles to save the pub, its last remaining communal space.

There are moments when the central story of Euan’s stubborn resistance to change perhaps seems a little slender to bear the weight of so much musical invention. Any doubts are quickly swept away, though, by the whirlwind energy of director Luke Kernaghan’s hugely talented company which – despite a rehearsal period seriously disrupted by Covid – thrills the audience time and again with some superb new interpretations of Runrig songs, arranged by musical director John Kielty, and often sung by women, including a superb Neshla Caplan as Annie, and Annie Grace as Mary.

With a cast of ten on stage, plus three musicians, The Stamping Ground is a big show with a huge heart, full of a love, wisdom and energy the world desperately needs, in these times; and with the members of Runrig offering it their full support and blessing, it should be guaranteed a long and joyful theatrical life, both in Inverness this month, and next year, when it begins a nationwide Scottish tour.

The Stamping Ground is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, until 30 July