Theatre reviews: With You In The Distance | Black Diamonds and the Blue Brazil | A Splinter of Ice

A promenade performance which weaves its way from the Briggait to Glasgow Green and back, With You In The Distance paints a vivid picture of what the city must have been like in the late 19th century, at the height of its imperial power and bustle, while telling the story of two men who could never become fully part of its life. Reviews by Joyce McMillan

Neil John Gibson and Ciaran Stewart, stars of With You in the Distance PIC: Claire Millar

The Briggait in Glasgow is now a cultural centre, home to a whole range of arts organisations; but for a century after it opened in 1873, it was Glasgow’s main fish market, its great wrought-iron central hall echoing to the sound of fish being delivered and unloaded, and of stall-holders touting their wares.

It’s at the main gate of The Briggait, on Bridgegate itself, that you meet Neil John Gibson, if you are one of the lucky ticket-holders for With You In The Distance (****), a new promenade theatre experience which Gibson has written for EHG Theatre, and which he performs (alternating with actor Ciaran Stewart) for a single audience member, during a 75 minute walk from The Briggait to Glasgow Green and back; and after a brief introduction, he leads you round to the Clyde riverside, where he begins his task of storytelling, and you – the audience – begin your task of imagining this scene as it might have been in 1888, the year when his story is set.

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Gibson’s purpose, in this play, is to imagine himself – and to lead you – into the minds and hearts of two young men who might have met in Glasgow that year: 27-year-old Stuart, a vigorous young man making a success of his family’s fish trading business, and 29-year-old Anselmo, a merchant sailor from northern Spain spending time in Glasgow between voyages. Both men are gay; but both have grown up in societies that view homosexuality as an abomination. Stuart has sought to suppress his feelings through prayer and hard work; Anselmo, after a traumatising experience in his teens, has become bitter and violent, expressing his fear and self-hatred by savagely attacking any gay men he encounters.

When the two meet one day in The Briggait, though, the attraction between them is overwhelming; and within days, somewhere in the darkness of Glasgow Green, they have become lovers. And what Gibson achieves – as he leads us through those same city landscapes, 133 years on – is to combine a love story of soaring and exquisite lyricism with a searing, perfectly-crafted tragedy of love destroyed by the fear and hatred intolerance breeds in the hearts of the lovers themselves; and with an unforgettable portrait of a city, at the height of its imperial power and bustle, seen through the eyes of two men who could never, in those days, become fully part of its life, and whose hidden selves might break free and destroy them, at any time.

For those who find the traditional demands of masculinity easier to handle, though, one of the key passports to belonging often lies in football, and in passionate attachment to a local team. The latest show in the Lyceum-Pitlochry Sound Stage season of audio dramas is Gary McNair’s Black Diamonds and The Blue Brazil (***), based on the book by Ron Ferguson, and featuring the story of a woman called Sally – played with terrific force by Cora Bissett – who, in the midst of a glittering 1990s career in Los Angeles, finds herself back in her home town of Cowdenbeath for her father’s funeral.

The only problem is that her Dad, a passionate football fan, has left behind a final request that proves difficult to fulfil, given the truly terrible relegation season on which Cowdenbeath’s team, known as the Blue Brazil, are about embark. Cue a feast of terrible comic stereotypes and predictable dramatic tropes, as Sally’s dead dad teaches her a few vital, not to say sentimental, life-lessons about loyalty, belonging and community. Despite the odd toe-curling moment, though, Black Diamonds and The Blue Brazil emerges as a engaging 90 minutes of audio entertainment, thanks to a few excellent jokes, some well-shaped but light-touch direction from David Greig, cheerfully ironic football songs recorded by Fife fans, and match commentary delivered by none other than Archie Macpherson himself.

In Edinburgh, meanwhile, it was a real joy, last week, to see the King’s Theatre reopen its doors after a long 16 months – with audiences carefully masked and distanced – for a live performance of Original Theatre’s touring production of A Splinter of Ice (***), Ben Brown’s new play about a late-1980s encounter in Moscow between Kim Philby, the spy who had defected to the USSR 25 years earlier, and the British novelist Graham Greene.

A Splinter of Ice is a play full of talk, and arguably a less-than-necessary addition to the already large canon of work inspired by the story of the “Cambridge spies.” Yet with the help of a lovely and spirited performance from Karen Ascoe as Philby’s fourth and last wife Rufa, Stephen Boxer as Philby and Oliver Ford Davies as Greene work their way through the twists and turns of the conversation in richly enjoyable style; taking us back, for 90 minutes or so, to a time in 20th century history when people’s lives and relationships were often mere collateral damage in the lethal game of war and politics – and to that moment of hope, in the late 1980s, when it seemed that those wounds might begin to heal, at last.

With You In The Distance runs until 7 August, www.ehgtheatre.com. Black Diamonds and the Blue Brazil is available online until 25 July at www.lyceum.org.uk or www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com. A Splinter of Ice, run completed but available online until 31 July at https://originaltheatreonline.com/productions/20/a-splinter-of-ice

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