Theatre reviews: Unspotted Snow | Casablanca – The Gin Joint Cut

THE astonishing Alasdair McCrone has just announced his retirement as artistic director of Mull Theatre, after more than 25 years, but it’s a measure of his commitment to new writing in Scotland that he should finish his directorship with not one but two spring touring productions of new plays by leading Scottish writers.

Alasdair McCrone, Alan Steele and Alan Mackenzie are impressive and engaging in Unspotted Snow

Unspotted Snow, Howden Park Centre, Livingston ****

Casablanca - The Gin Joint Cut, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

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Back in February, he gave us Robert Dawson Scott’s The Electrifying Mr Johnston, about the wartime Secretary of State who brought hydroelectric power to the Highlands. Now he delivers the world premiere of a new play – or pair of plays – by Peter Arnott, about the disastrous 1840s British expedition to find the North-West passage, led by Sir John Franklin.

Casablanca - The Gin Joint Cut, written and directed by Morag Fullarton with Gavin Mitchell as Rick and Kevin Lennon as the police chief

Trapped in sea ice over two Arctic winters, the expedition’s two ships finally began to break up; and in the first half of Arnott’s boldly-structured drama, we find three hardy crew members, the Scotsman Chalmers, the young officer Fleming, and the elderly scientist Hopkirk, still struggling southward from the wreck hauling one of the ship’s boats, filled with remnants of the civilisation that made them.

In a fantastical episode improbably enlivened by songs, Arnott satirises the imperial attitudes Fleming and Hopkirk bring with them, while honouring the courage and stoicism of all three; and Alan Steele, Alan Mackenzie, and McCrone himself turn in a trio of impressive and engaging performances, as they meditate on their fate, and try to avoid the stain of the terrible last resort to cannibalism that, they suggest, has claimed their desperate shipmates, further north.

There’s a slight sense, though, that Arnott’s play only really gets going in its second half, set six years later in the London drawing-room of Franklin’s indomitable wife Lady Jane, played in magnificent and subtle style by Beth Marshall. A visitor arrives in the shape of Dr John Rae, a Scottish doctor and explorer who brings news of the expedition’s terrible fate. The narrative he brings, though, is not the one she wants to hear; and with the help of her pretty niece Sophie, Sophie’s stuffed-shirt naval suitor, and a very distinguished literary friend, she sets about destroying Rae’s reputation, and ensuring that her husband is remembered as a hero.

In a brief 50 minutes, this part of the drama – also lifted by an exquisite song or two from Kirsty Findlay as Sophie – delivers a powerful reflection on the myth-making and suppression of truth necessary to create a story as potent as the one of Britain’s exceptional imperial destiny and virtue, still playing out in our politics today. And it also helps, as Arnott intends, to restore the reputation of Rae; a true scientist and adventurer who respects the Inuit people, and profoundly rejects the hard-faced establishment dismissal of inconvenient truths that people like Lady Franklin helped to build into the very foundations of Empire.

It’s not surprising, in the light of those attitudes, that an increasingly empowered 20th century British working class often tended to feel closer to the popular American culture they experienced at the movies than to the official British version, and no film epitomises the alternative system of power, glamour and influence created by Hollywood more vividly than Michael Curtiz’s great 1942 classic Casablanca. Morag Fullarton’s spoof one-hour stage version of the film, first created for A Play, A Pie, and A Pint in 2010, pulls off the astonishing trick of both sending the film up – in a script full of jolly meta-theatrical jokes – and also deeply honouring its romantic anti-fascist spirit, beautifully captured in Gavin Mitchell’s central performance as Rick.

Now, Fullarton’s Casablanca has not only topped an audience poll to become the favourite Play, Pie and Pint show of all time, revived to mark 500 shows since 2004, but has achieved such unusual advance sales at the Traverse that its performances there have been moved into Traverse 1. Clare Waugh is as lovely and witty as ever as Rick’s lost love Ilsa; Kevin Lennon is hilarious as the French police chief plus other characters. And the whole show works up such a rich blend of nostalgic celebration, political passion and sheer wit that it leaves audiences cooing with pleasure; and – in the film’s most famous scene – singing the Marseillaise with such gusto that just for a moment, a nightclub space in the Byres Road seems like a gin joint in French-occupied Casablanca, some time in 1941. - JOYCE MCMILLAN

Unspotted Snow is in Ullapool tomorrow, and on tour across Scotland until 11 May. Casablanca is at Oran Mor today and tomorrow, and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 30 April until 4 May