Theatre reviews: Orphans | My Doric Diary

Based on Peter Mullan’s 1998 film, the National Theatre of Scotland’s new musical Orphans is a raging Glasgow tempest of a show, writes Joyce McMillan

Chloe Hodgson, Amy Conachan, Betty Valencia and Amber Sylvia Edwards in Orphans. PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic
Chloe Hodgson, Amy Conachan, Betty Valencia and Amber Sylvia Edwards in Orphans. PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

Orphans, SEC Clyde Auditorium, Glasgow ****

My Doric Diary, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

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Mother Glasgow, eh? Perpetual succour, clipped wings, so many other complex images evoked and analysed, since Hue & Cry released their iconic song in 1989; and nowhere more so than in Peter Mullan’s 1998 film Orphans, a pitch-dark black comedy about how the four adult children of an archetypal Glasgow mother get through the night before her funeral.

The story is stormy, shambolic, noisy and sometimes violent; and now – in a startling and brilliant initiative by National Theatre of Scotland associate director Cora Bissett – it is transformed into a thrillingly intense three-hour stage musical, with a hugely entertaining script by Douglas Maxwell, and a playlist of more than 20 original songs by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly that often shade towards intense sung-through drama, or even rock opera.

There are echoes that range from Carousel to the Beggar’s Opera and beyond, as younger brothers Michael and John and their sister Sheila make their way through a tragi-comic underworld of Glasgow at night, with Michael hallucinating after a stab wound picked up in a rough pub, young John beside himself with vengeful rage, and wheelchair user Sheila so exasperated with them all – including pious eldest brother Thomas, keeping vigil beside their mother’s coffin – that she sets off alone though the city, making some unexpected new friends.

Sometimes, the stereotypes of head-banging Glasgow aggression and obscenity deployed seem too familiar and extreme for comfort, as the 15-strong company – surrounded by Emily James’ spectacular, ever-shifting set of Glasgow tenements, pubs, and chapels – belt out songs with titles like Every C*** Should Love Every C***, and the raging Ram It!; and some of the cast – including a superb Louise McCarthy – excel themselves in evoking a gallery of late-nights grotesques and victims.

Always, though, the play comes back to the grief and bewilderment of the four siblings, brilliantly played and sung by Amy Conachan as Sheila, Robert Florence as Thomas, Reuben Joseph as Michael, and Dylan Wood as John. Often masked by aggression or blind rage, always standing as a metaphor for the mighty human pain and loss on which industrial and post-industrial Glasgow was built, their sorrow and madness and search for new meaning is the absolute core of this remarkable musical drama. Orphans is not for the faint-hearted; but if you want a guide to how humanity, even at its most desperate, can weather the storm together, then this raging Glasgow tempest of a show will offer you that – and much, much more.

If the National Theatre of Scotland is looking for rising stars to cast in future musicals, meanwhile, then it should check out the sheer glowing talent on display in the latest Play, Pie Pint lunchtime show, Ayetunes’ My Doric Diary. Ayetunes are composer-performers Katie Barnett and James Siggens; and here, Barnett plays Daisy, a girl from The Broch (Fraserburgh) who is about to turn 17, and is chafing at the restrictions imposed on her by her grandmother, who has brought her up after her mother died in a car crash on the night of her birth.

Through a twist of Hogmanay magic, Daisy – who loves to speak Doric, to her grandmother’s dismay – is allowed to return to that fateful night 17 years before, and to see and hear her mother sing with her own band, in a beautiful, lyrical modern Doric. The play doesn’t belabour the cultural point it makes; but it does embody it, in a gorgeous, humorous and perfectly-shaped 50-minute solo show in which Barnett – backed by Siggens and musical director Gavin Whitworth – shines like a true star as Daisy, on the cusp of life, and about to find her own voice, at last.

Orphans is at the SEC, Glasgow, until 9 April, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh 12-16 April, and Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 26-30 April. My Doric Diary is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 9 April, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh 12-16 April, and the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 19-23 April.

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