Theatre reviews: Keepers of the Light | Storyland

Exploring the mystery of the Flannan Isles lighthouse, Izzy Gray’s Keepers of the Light is a memorably powerful play in the great tradition of Scottish workplace drama, writes Joyce McMillan

Keepers of the Light, The Studio, Edinburgh ****

Lynn Ferguson’s Storyland, Eastgate, Peebles ****

Keepers of the Light PIC: Andrew PeryKeepers of the Light PIC: Andrew Pery
Keepers of the Light PIC: Andrew Pery

On a blustery day in 2023, three men arrive at the Flannan Isles lighthouse, 20 miles west of Lewis, to carry out some maintenance. Built in the 1890s, and first lit in 1899, the light has been automated since 1971, and no keepers live there now. But it is the setting for one of Scotland’s most haunting sea stories, and in no time seasoned maintenance men Davie and Alec are regaling new boy Mac with the story of the strange events of December 1900, when the three lighthouse keepers on Flannan Isle vanished without trace.

This is the effective opening of Izzy Gray’s powerful 2022 play Keepers of the Light, written by a woman who is herself a keeper’s ganddaughter, and now on tour around Scotland with the support of the Northern Lighthouse Heritage Trust. And if Gray takes a little too long to come to the point, prefacing the first modern-day scene with a long introduction set in 1900, it is still a gripping 100-minute drama that not only reminds modern-day audiences of the Flannan Isles mystery, but also speculates on the dynamics within any group of male workers that might have led to disaster, and meditates on the slipperiness of narrative itself, caught between the human drive to know the truth and our attraction to a good and spooky conspiracy story.

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In Gray’s own production, Rhys Anderson, Fraser Sievewright and Garry Stewart play the two groups of three men, then and now, with extraordinary passion, commitment and skill, capturing the tensions among the men of 1900, trapped for weeks by an unprecedented storm, and the much more light-hearted relationship among the modern-day crew, who know that they can be picked up by chopper in the morning.

If Gray’s play could use slightly fewer words and more action – and runs through at least four excellent endings before it finally fades to silence – it remains a memorably powerful play in the great tradition of Scottish workplace drama, building an unbreakable link between those who work to sustain Scotland’s vital coastal lights today, and the men who once, in a dark and dangerous isolation, gave up so much of their lives to that same task.

Lynn Ferguson’s Storyland is also a show about the slipperiness of storytelling; sometimes a great vehicle for truth, sometimes just a pack of lies. After a successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the legendary Glasgow-born and Los Angeles-based Ferguson is now taking her Gilded Balloon solo show across Scotland, giving audiences from Peebles to Perth and beyond a chance to spend 70 minutes in the company of one of the world’s passionate truth-tellers; a woman who weaves yarns about her own experience and that of others, in pursuit of the deep realities that shape our lives.

Ferguson’s hour of narrative leads us down many delightful side-tracks, and into the highly emotional places of her own recent brush with breast cancer. In the end, though, what she delivers is a clarion call to us all, as citizens, to take charge of our own narrative, and not to be seduced by accounts of reality concocted by power-seekers for their own ends.

In Ferguson’s book, we should all be storytellers, in our own right; and in this moving and life-enhancing hour of solo theatre, she shows us how.

Keepers Of The Light is on tour until 23 September, to Oban, Portree, Breasclete, Greenock, St Andrews and Findhorn. Storyland is on tour until 17 September, to Livingston, Giffnock, Musselburgh and Hawick.

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