Tam Dean Burn on Lost at Sea: “This is an epic story that gets right inside a community”

Tam Dean Burn PIC: Greg Macvean
Tam Dean Burn PIC: Greg Macvean
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The last time Tam Dean Burn appeared in a Perth Theatre production, it was the winter of 1980-81. Margaret Thatcher had recently been elected prime minister, the post-punk rebellion against all things Establishment was in full swing; and although the young Tam knew that he was lucky in conventional terms to have won a vital first theatre job as an acting ASM with Joan Knight’s legendary Perth company, he frankly felt that there were other places he would rather be.

Back in Edinburgh and Glasgow, he had been closely involved with the radical playwright George Byatt, whose Theatre PKF had already scored a left-field success with his brilliant, fantastical theatrical poem The Clyde Is Red. Another Byatt play-with-music, Why Does The Pope Not Come To Glasgow, had caused a stir at the 1980 Edinburgh Fringe. Dean Burn also played in a band called The Dirty Reds, and – as a born and bred Edinburgh lad – was closely involved in the burgeoning Edinburgh indie music scene around the Fast Product record label, run by Bob Last.

“Punk had had this enormous impact on us,” says Dean Burn, talking of an Edinburgh generation that also included luminaries like Irvine Welsh, and musician Davy Henderson of the Fire Engines. “I just felt that there was so much going on in Edinburgh and Glasgow at the time, in both music and theatre; and then I had to go away and be in Perth for seven months. I did want the possibility of a career as an actor, though; and when they told me I would lose my new Equity card if I left, I decided to stick it out.”

The whole episode, in other words, was typical of the rich creative tension that has shaped Dean Burn’s life as an actor, theatre-maker, musician and radical activist. To the wider public, he is probably best known as a familiar face in films and television series that range from River City to the recent BBC series The Victim, starring Kelly Macdonald. Last month a 42-year-old-man appeared at Edinburgh Sheriff Court charged with attempted murder following reports that Dean Burn had been stabbed just after leaving the Scottish Poetry Library where he spoke at a tribute event.

Throughout his acting life, Dean Burn has continued to work in theatre as well as on screen, to play in bands including his current ensemble The Bum-Clocks, and to explore the wilder reaches of radical theatre, criss-crossing art-forms, and often wearing his socialist and anti-Establishment politics on his sleeve. And now, all of those strands are coming together for Dean Burn, in the project that has brought him back to Perth.

Morna Young’s new play Lost At Sea is an intense piece of personal history, shaped by Young’s own experience as the daughter of a fishing family in the tiny north-east coast village of Burghead. When she was five years old in 1989, her fisherman father Donnie Young was lost in the North Sea; and after an early career as a journalist in London, Morna Young has spent the last eight years gradually putting together the material she needs – the stories, the memories, the recorded interviews around the community where she grew up – to tell both the story of his death and the wider history of the industry in which he worked, and which has always exacted such a heavy price from Britain’s coastal communities.

The result, says Dean Burn, is a vital piece of recent working-class history, told in the voices of the people who lived it, through songs, choruses, and powerful visual images, as well as dialogue; and the sheer quality of the team that has been attracted to it – which includes former Traverse and West Yorkshire Playhouse director Ian Brown, composer Pippa Murphy, and a superb nine-strong cast led by Dean Burn with Gerry Mulgrew of Communicado – is perhaps a measure both of the intense quality of Young’s play, and of the current lack of powerful working-class drama in British theatre.

“For me, this is a great epic story that uses a chorus of voices to get right inside a community, in a way that only someone who belongs to that community could do,” says Dean Burn. “Morna lost her dad to the sea, and also other family members, in this profession that’s so ancient it almost transcends time, and yet is now struggling to survive.

“Like everything else in our society, the fishing industry has been distorted and corrupted by capitalism, in particular by the way the British government chose to make EU quotas and licences tradeable commodities. Yet when people are lost, fishing communities often find it too painful to go back and ask why; and that’s why Morna’s work is so important: because she has been able to persuade a community shaped by these experiences to talk about it, and to be part of making this play.”

He adds: “Back in 2013 I took part in the first-ever reading of Lost At Sea in Lossiemouth, very near Burghead; and it was an extraordinary experience. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a performance that meant so much to an audience. These are communities that often don’t look outward, don’t expect the wider world to understand their lives; that’s one reason why the Doric language is still so strong with them. But Morna speaks and writes that language, in a wonderfully theatrical way; and now, I’m really thrilled to be part of this great team, bringing the life of that community, and what it tells us about our society, to audiences all over Scotland – and maybe beyond.”

Lost at Sea is at Perth Theatre from 25 April until 4 May