Theatre review: Oor Wullie, Dundee Rep

Leah Byrne, Martin Quinn and Eklovey Kashyap play Basher McKenzie, Oor Wullie and Wahid in the new musical.
Leah Byrne, Martin Quinn and Eklovey Kashyap play Basher McKenzie, Oor Wullie and Wahid in the new musical.
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Almost everyone in Scotland knows the image, as vivid now as when it was first published in the Sunday Post, back in 1936. The dungarees, the spiky hair, the famous bucket; and the gallus wee chap of ten or so for whom that bucket is an essential home base and resting-place, between cheeky adventures.

Oor Wullie, Dundee Rep ****

The Oor Wullie stories, though - with their range of 1930s style smalltown characters, from naughty gangs of weans to tetchy but good-hearted policeman - are perhaps a shade more inclined to show their age; and there’s no doubting the scale of the challenge taken on by young musical-writing team Noisemaker (writer Scott Gilmour and composer Claire McKenzie) when they set out to transform the beloved Oor Wullie comic strip into a 21st century musical, complete with vivid contemporary themes of acceptance and belonging, in the very different Scotland of 2019.

So in Oor Wullie the musical - lovingly co-produced by Noisemaker, Dundee Rep, Selladoor and the Sunday Post’s publishers DC Thomson Media - the story begins, after a brief voiceover introduction, with a young Dundee lad from an Asian family making his way through a typical lonely Monday, plagued both by the casual racism of those who simply assume he must come from somewhere else, even though he was born in Scotland, and by more deliberate racist bullying at school.

His fortunes begin to change, though, when he takes refuge in the school library, where a kindly man called Dudley (Dudley Watkins was one of Oor Wullie’s original creators) gives him a bucket to sit on, and a copy of an Oor Wullie Annual, which he reluctantly takes home. Cue a strange collision between alternative universes, during which Oor Wullie appears in Wahid’s bedroom, looking for his missing bucket; and as Wullie’s chums follow him into the 21st century, the story soon soars into serial hilarity, as the quest for the bucket leads the wee scamp and his chums all around town, then back through the portal to Wullie’s 1930s Auchenshoogle home, with bold Wulllie and wise Wahid forming a closer alliance at every step.

There are moments, admittedly, when the show’s plot makes very little sense, even on its own terms; I’m dashed if I know, even now, exactly where the big magic bin lorry came in, or why it was necessary. Yet the songs are merry and heartfelt, with some of them carrying a real emotional punch; Kenneth Macleod’s set is vivid and clever, with a strong Dundee-and-Angus look to its street scenes that the audience loves. And the inimitable Dundee Rep ensemble deliver the show with terrific flair and wit, with Martin Quinn as Wullie and Eklovey Kashyap as Wahid leading a cast that also includes a hilarious turn from Rep star Ann Louise Ross as PC Murdoch; as Andrew Panton’s eleven-strong company dance and sing their way to a snowy closing scene that may not be a typical Christmas show finale, but that marks the arrival of a new Scottish musical that will surely warm the hearts of thousands in Dundee this Christmas, and on tour around the country, early next year. Joyce McMillan

Dundee Rep until 5 January, and on tour across Scotland, 20 January until 14 March.