Theatre reviews: Scenes for Survival | Heads Up | Living With the Lights On

Jonathan Watson’s performance of a scene from Frances Poet’s play Fibres is the highlight of the National Theatre of Scotland’s series of online films made in lockdown
Brian Cox in Rebus Lockdown BluesBrian Cox in Rebus Lockdown Blues
Brian Cox in Rebus Lockdown Blues

A rush of heavy machinery past the camera’s eye, and a face appears on screen. It’s the face of Jonathan Watson, an actor still best known, over the years, for his brilliant impressions of players and managers on the Scottish football satire show Only An Excuse. Watson has always been a performer with hidden depths, though; and here, as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes For Survival series – slow to arrive on the lockdown scene, two weeks ago, but already acclaimed for its superb and enriching quality of writing, performance and production – he is re-creating on screen his stage role as Jack, the leading character in Frances Poet’s 2019 play Fibres, about the impact of asbestos-related lung disease on working-class families in the west of Scotland.

This monologue, drawn from the play, is only seven minutes long; but somehow it manages to convey not only much of the story of this terrible disease, and how men contracted it in their workplaces; but also – with the help of a few brief flashes of historical footage – the even more complex story of male pride in the heavy industrial work of the Clyde, and in Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, where, in 1971, shop stewards Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie led a legendary work-in to save the yard from closure.

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The result is a glorious short film, titled Mug’s Game (*****) in which Watson gives what is probably the performance of his life, subtle, moving and utterly alive to the historical and social meaning of the story he tells; and this little fragment of brilliance is just one of many, in the ten Scenes For Survival films already released by the NTS and its partners – including Screen Scotland and BBC Arts Culture In Quarantine – with 30 more to come.Mug’s Game stands out partly because it is an extract from a recent play not directly related to the Covid crisis; but the new lockdown monologues created specially for Scenes For Survival also show a terrific range of inspiration.

Kate Dickie in Isolation, by Jenni FaganKate Dickie in Isolation, by Jenni Fagan
Kate Dickie in Isolation, by Jenni Fagan

So in upstate New York, in Rebus Lockdown Blues by Ian Rankin (****), the inimitable Brian Cox films himself in his kitchen, imagining the state of mind of an elderly Rebus as he suffers lockdown in his Edinburgh flat, missing the pub, and waiting for a daily delivery of food and meds from his long-suffering sidekick, Siobhan; in Glasgow, in Jenni Fagan’s Isolation (****), Kate Dickie gives us the powerful inner journey of a single mother striving to recover from a severe attack of Covid-19 so that she can see her beloved child again. In a gentle, lethally brilliant five-minute short called Alone (****), writer and performer Janey Godley – the woman behind the hilarious Nicola Sturgeon voiceovers – gives us a woman whose lockdown story reaches a darkly ironic happy ending.

In the longest Scenes For Survival film released so far, the 18-minute Fat Baws by Douglas Maxwell (****), Peter Mullan conjures up a superb confrontation between a solitary Glasgow house owner and a cheeky jackdaw in his back garden, who while demanding fat-balls in the bird-feeder, has some hard words to say about humankind’s pretensions to rule the planet. And in Venusvirus by Luke Sutherland (****), Tam Dean Burn succeeds in taking an extract from Luke Sutherland’s superb 2004 book Venus As A Boy – first transformed into an NTS stage show in 2007 – and making it look like a new piece of writing for the age of the virus; perhaps because the book itself was written partly in response to the Aids epidemic, and the impact of that virus on gay and trans-sexual communities across the world.

Elsewhere online, too, other companies are also reviewing their back catalogues for plays that seem to speak powerfully to the moment in which we find ourselves; and producers Show And Tell have made a brilliant choice in making available (at the modest rental price of £4) their full live recording of Scottish playwright-performer Kieran Hurley’s terrific monologue-with-beats Heads Up (****), first seen at Summerhall during the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe.

Heads Up is essentially a one-hour stage poem about the end of the world, as seen through the eyes of half a dozen characters across a doomed city; and looking back from this period of lockdown, it seems both overwhelmingly powerful in its evocation of the rushed, cruel, glitzy and appearance-obsessed urban culture that shuddered to a temporary halt in the spring of this year, and eerily prescient in its sense that a sudden crash and meltdown was coming, and must come.

Jonathan Watson in Mug's GameJonathan Watson in Mug's Game
Jonathan Watson in Mug's Game

It’s not surprising, finally, that many lockdown monologues – including those in the Scenes For Survival series – directly or indirectly confront questions of mental health; and so the timing is almost perfect for the online world premiere – hosted by the current Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival – of actor Mark Lockyer’s solo show Living With The Lights On, about his long journey into the hellish depths of manic depression, and back again. First seen live at SMHAF in 2017, the show was always a remarkable tour de force, in which Lockyer plays dozens of characters, from the devil himself to the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Adrian Noble; when Lockyer first became seriously ill, he was playing Mercutio in Noble’s production of Romeo And Juliet at Stratford-upon-Avon.

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The film version, though – a full 100 minutes long – is a superb example (*****) of what can be achieved by a brilliant writer-performer with a smartphone, plus an excellent director and editor (Geraldine Williams and Emily Benita), in creating a shocking inner journey through mental breakdown that is also a strange, disturbing visual feast, full of surreal moments and brilliant thumbnail caricatures. The film’s ending, as Lockyer finally reaches a degree of peace with himself, and learns, after all, to value as precious the life he once saw as utterly worthless, is profoundly moving; and Lockyer has produced a film that represents an outstanding contribution both to this year’s online SMHAF festival, and to the wider emerging world of art and performance created in lockdown, during this rare moment of reflection and disruption.

The National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes For Survival are all available free at; Kieran Hurley’s Heads Up is at until 22 June; Living With The Lights On is at until 15 June

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