Theatre reviews: Opening Time | Seven Against Edinburgh

Dave Anderson’s lyrics snap and crackle with verbal energy and pure wit in Opening Time, writes Joyce McMillan

The bar is open at The Wander Inn for Lola Aluko, Alan Orr and Steven Wren
The bar is open at The Wander Inn for Lola Aluko, Alan Orr and Steven Wren

Opening Time, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

Seven Against Edinburgh, Lyceum Theatre Studio, Edinburgh ***

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It begins in elegiac mode, this latest fragment of inspired music theatre from the great Dave Anderson, of Wildcat and Play, Pie And Pint fame. It is, the first song tells us, the story of a man caught on the cusp of old age by the sudden isolation of lockdown. These two years have aged him, he feels, and left him only with memories of “days filled with music and rhyme”.

Yet even in this opening number – beautifully delivered by Steven Wren as the older man Anderson calls “The Ghost” – the lyrics snap and crackle with verbal energy and pure wit; and once the show’s two other characters step into the spotlight, the mood begins to range from the hopeful to the absurd with an admirable lightness of touch, and an occasional edge of real political anger.

The setting is an imagined Glasgow pub called the Wander Inn. The Ghost is a regular customer, and Blessing the student barmaid – played with laid-back brilliance by RCS student Lola Aluko – also responds with the same easy hospitality to assorted other punters, each played with flair by Alan Orr. These include a singer called Robbie Williamson who finds himself trapped in a career as a Robbie Williams tribute act, while despising Williams’s music; and although a visit from a committed anti-vaxxer sorely tries Blessing’s patience – inspiring a fine song called You Should Meet My Mother – she retains her admirable calm throughout.

Directed with feeling by Kirstin McLean, the show soars a little towards the end, into an anthem called New Normal that distils all Anderson’s longing for a continued struggle towards a better world; and although Anderson’s poor health after a winter bout of Covid prevented him from appearing in Opening Time himself, his voice rings as clear as a bell through a show as droll as it is passionate, both about the sadness of old age, and about the burning need for better times.

If Dave Anderson is one of the founding fathers of modern music theatre in Scotland, there’s certainly no shortage of younger theatre-makers ready to follow in his footsteps; and the Lyceum Studio this week sees the first performances of a 90-minute rock musical after Anderson’s own heart, written and directed by Becky Hope-Palmer with music by Sofia Kherroubi Garcia, and performed with gusto and passion by members of the Lyceum Young Company.

The theme of Seven Against Edinburgh is the story of the seven young women – led Sophia Jex-Blake – who, in the early 1870s, set about trying to train as doctors at Edinburgh University, despite the widespread Victorian assumption that medicine was no profession for a woman; and also the story of how the Seven have largely been forgotten, with no memorial to them ever created, anywhere in Edinburgh.

In Hope-Palmer’s play, eight young 21st century Edinburgh women – aged sixteen, and still at school – decide to try to remedy the situation, with the help of all-female rock band The Patriarchy Slayers; but they soon discover that the story of the Seven is anything but a simple tale of struggle and triumph.

There are moments when Seven Against Edinburgh seems like a slightly odd mix of brilliant music, and vaguely cartoonish re-enactments of Jex-Blake’s confrontations with the Edinburgh medical establishment. Yet at its high points, in great anthemic songs like the closing number You Gotta Work, the show has force, flair and style by the bucketload; and promises great things to come in the world of musical theatre, if the younger generation of female artists have anything to do with it.

Opening Time at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and Seven Against Edinburgh at the Lyceum Theatre Studio, Edinburgh, both until 23 April.