Theatre reviews: Beautiful - The Carole King Musical and Nan Shepherd - Naked and Unashamed, Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Kirsty Findlay makes a breathtakingly strong and moving lead in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at Pitlochry, writes Joyce McMillan

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Pitlochry Festival Theatre ****

Nan Shepherd: Naked And Unashamed, Pitlochry Festival Theatre ***

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When Carole King’s great album Tapestry was released in 1971, its physical presence, as well as its mighty songs, swept the world in ways that are hard to imagine in the age of the internet. Both the music, and Carole’s image on the album cover – all big 1970s hair and long, drifty cotton dress – seemed like the embodiment of an age; and many of us who were young then were amazed to find that this fabulous post-hippy icon from California, still only 29 years old, also had a ten-year Tinpan Alley history as the composer of dozens of 1960s bubblegum hits, from It Might As Well Rain Until September to Little Eva’s The Locomotion.

Kirsty Findlay in Beautiful - The Carole King Musical PIC: Fraser BandKirsty Findlay in Beautiful - The Carole King Musical PIC: Fraser Band
Kirsty Findlay in Beautiful - The Carole King Musical PIC: Fraser Band

It therefore makes every kind of sense for Pitlochry Festival Theatre to launch its 2024 summer season with a heartbreakingly powerful homegrown production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, one of the finest of all musical tribute shows. The secret of the show’s success is that instead of trying to tell the whole story of King’s long creative life, the writer, the late Douglas McGrath, focusses on her early years, when she emerged from Brooklyn aged 16 with a head full of songs, joined Don Kirshner’s famous Brill Building school of songwriters, met her husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin, had two daughters, and began to churn out hits for other artists; and then on her astonishing transition, after the end of her marriage, to become the solo artist who created Tapestry.

It’s a fantastic human story; and in Sam Hardie’s brilliant Pitlochry production, it’s handled with such skill and passion – by a 14-strong Pitlochry ensemble company of actor-musicians, led by a breathtakingly strong and moving Kirsty Findlay as Carole King – that it finally has the audience on its feet, crying, dancing, and cheering the company to the echo.

The choreography and movement is superbly co-ordinated by Sundeep Saini, with equally impressive music direction by Richard Reeday. And if there are plenty of fine supporting performances from this brilliantly committed company, in the end the focus of the show always swings back to Findlay’s unforgettable Carole, her wonderful voice, her self-mocking wit, and her sheer creative brilliance; the skinny girl from Brooklyn who never knew how beautiful she was, until she finally began to sing her own song.

Another remarkable woman features in Pitlochry’s opening Studio production of the season. Co-written by director Richard Baron and Ellie Zeegen, of Firebrand Theatre, Nan Shepherd: Naked And Unashamed introduces us to the story of the astonishingly bold and radical writer and teacher whose youthful image – in a striking gold headband – now features on Scottish banknotes.

Nan Shepherd - Naked and Unashamed PIC: Fraser BandNan Shepherd - Naked and Unashamed PIC: Fraser Band
Nan Shepherd - Naked and Unashamed PIC: Fraser Band

Born in Aberdeenshire in 1893, Nan Shepherd won fame for her 1928 novel The Quarry Wood, and then experienced decades of neglect, before the publication in 1977 of what is now her most famous work, The Living Mountain; and she is now seen as a pioneer in understanding the deep symbiotic relationship between human beings and the natural world.

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The play therefore takes us on an 80-minute whistle-stop tour of her astonishing life and character, using a complicated flashback structure that perhaps demands a little too much self-conscious elderly acting from the youthful Irene Allan, a touching and enthusiastic Nan, while David Rankine offers thumbnail sketches of the most significant men in her life.

Where the play shines, though, is in demonstrating Shepherd’s profound sense of connection with all the great political and cultural movements of her time. In a sense, it still feels as if Shepherd’s story is only beginning to be told; but this thoughtful and richly enjoyable play makes a valuable contribution to that process, while signalling many areas that could be explored in different and deeper ways.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical until 28 September; Nan Shepherd: Naked And Unashamed until 6 July