Theatre reviews: A Mother's Song | Dancing with the Devil

Ambitious, exhilarating and moving, A Mother’s Song is a major new show on the Scottish theatre scene – and one that will surely soon be on tour again, writes Joyce McMillan

A Mother’s Song, Macrobert, Stirling ****

Dancing With The Devil, Cumbernauld Theatre at Lanternhouse ***

The story begins in the present day, in the New York apartment where young same-sex couple Sarah and Alix have just settled, for what they hope will be a lifetime of bliss. Among their boxes, though, there is an old one left to Sarah by her Aunt Betty; and when she finally opens it, the tapes and memories she finds begin to reconnect her with her West Virginia childhood, and the Scottish and Irish-influenced folk and country music that pervaded it.

Bethany Tennick in A Mother's Song PIC: Tim MorozzoBethany Tennick in A Mother's Song PIC: Tim Morozzo
Bethany Tennick in A Mother's Song PIC: Tim Morozzo
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Ancestors begin to appear in her mind, demanding attention for the generations of women whose courage and resolution somehow brought their daughters to birth in hard times, and passed on the songs that reflected their struggles; and soon, Sarah’s relationship with Alix is at risk, as her perspective on herself and her life undergoes a profound change.

This is the opening of Finn Anderson and Tania Azevedo’s new musical A Mother’s Song, an ambitious, exhilarating and moving full-length hymn to the female heritage of Scottish song, passed down the generations. It represents the Macrobert Theatre’s contribution to the continuing search for the great Scottish musical, renewed with growing intensity since Scotland’s theatres emerged from lockdown; and it’s delivered by an 11-strong company – seven actor-singers and four musicians – bursting with talent and commitment.

A Mother’s Song is a show about musical heritage, a quality it shares with dozens of tribute shows. Here, though, the heritage is centuries deep, and almost entirely female; and composer, lyricist and co-writer Anderson weaves his intense score of a dozen new songs around the tunes, cadences and stories of a series of mighty folk classics which have stood the test of time, and crossed continents to arrive in this new age of Celtic connections.

In co-writer Azevedo’s strikingly well-crafted production, Bethany Trennick steps up powerfully to the role of Sarah, with Kirsty Findlay and Blythe Jandoo in superb vocal and emotional form as two of her generations-gone grandmothers. The show’s all-female band is magnificent throughout; and when the audience rise to their feet at the end, it seems as though they’re welcoming a major new show on the Scottish theatre scene – one that will surely soon be on tour again, along the songlines created over centuries by the great music it celebrates.

Dancing With The Devil is also a new Scottish musical featuring familiar songs, in this case, a terrific 1960s playlist made famous by Dusty Springfield and Cilla Black among others, combined with powerful new numbers specially written for the show.

The subject, though, is not the music itself, but the Bible John murders of the late 1960s – soundtracked as they were by the music played at the Glasgow dance halls where “John” would pick up his victims. Produced by writer and musician Paul Moore’s Arts Enigma company, Dancing With The Devil is a shoestring production that features a cast of nine with variable performance skills, and a few technical problems that distract from the vital story in hand.

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Like A Mother’s Song, though, it brilliantly foregrounds the voices and stories of women, in this case those who loved to go to Glasgow’s dance halls in those years. There are some terrific voices among the cast; and if Paul Moore’s script is sometimes a little too packed with puns and cross-references to be entirely dramatic, it nonetheless offers an intense and sometimes poetic reflection both on the women of the 1960s, and on the men – killers and others – who preyed on them and judged them, in terms that sadly still seem all too familiar, 55 years on.

A Mother’s Song, run ended. Dancing With The Devil is at the Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock, 2 March; Fort Theatre, Bishopbriggs, 3 March; and the Wynd Centre, Paisley, 4 March.

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