Theatre review: Rocket Post, An Lanntair, Stornoway

The cast of the Rocket Post
The cast of the Rocket Post
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In the summer of 1934, a young German called Gerhard Zucker arrived at the Harris Hotel in Tarbert and set up base there. Zucker was a young scientist obsessed with rocketry, particularly with the idea of using small rockets as a means of communication between remote communities, and he had become convinced that the narrow stretch of water between Harris and Scarp was the ideal place for his experiments.

Rocket Post ****

An Lanntair, Stornoway

The story of Zucker and his failed mail-rocket launches rapidly became part of Harris legend and now the National Theatre of Scotland and writer-director Lewis Hetherington have transformed it into a touring theatre show for children aged around 5-8, which opened at An Lanntair in Stornoway on Saturday.

Hetherington’s play, with light-touch songs in Gaelic and English woven into the score by musical director Michael John McCarthy, is a far-from-simple meditation on staying and going, home and the wide world, and the uses and abuses of communications technology both in the 1930s and now, in the age of drones, mobile phones and Kim Jong Un. The story’s young heroine, Bellag, beautifully played by MJ Deans, becomes enthralled by Gerhard’s dreams of a new world linked by technology and begins to rebel against her widowed mother Morag, who has already lost her son in the great emigration to Canada.

In these inter-war years, there’s also a backbeat of anti-German prejudice against Gerhard, and all these complex interactions are captured in thoughtful if unspectacular style by a fine ensemble that also includes Christina Gordon, Cait Kearney, Gavin Swift and Harry Ward.

Later this year, after a special final performance on Harris, Rocket Post will become the first NTS show to be screened in a cinema, using Scotland’s travelling Screen Machine to take a filmed version into communities the show can’t otherwise reach. In the meantime, though, venues across Scotland have the chance to enjoy a show that carries with it some of the unique energy of those island communities where interactive theatre – laced with the memories and footnotes of the audience – is not so much possible as inevitable. In Stornoway on Saturday, the current owner of the Harris Hotel arrived at An Lanntair with a photocopied page of the hotel register for July 1934, showing Zucker’s signature – in a place where history lives on in the shared life of the people and is rarely forgotten at all.

*Rocket Post plays in Ullapool, Thurso and Forres this week, then on tour until 21 October