Theatre review: Scotties, Tron, Glasgow

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There’s something both ambitious and awkward about Theatre Gu Leor’s latest show, supported by the National Theatre of Scotland and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. It will delight those who care for Scotland’s Gaelic heritage, and probably irritate those who don’t. It asks audiences to listen to dialogue in at least three languages – Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and English – and provides no translation, doubtless raising the hackles of those who are not willing to follow the drama regardless; it will please those who want to hear and consider the truth about Scotland’s close and complex historic relationship with Ireland, and perhaps enrage those who would rather shut down the whole subject.

Scotties, Tron, Glasgow ****

And it can’t be said, either, that Muireann Kelly’s 90-minute play – co-written with Frances Poet – always handles these demands with brilliance and aplomb. In setting out to tell the tale of Michael, a young 21st century Glasgow lad researching the Kirkintilloch tragedy of 1937 – when ten young male potato-pickers from Achill in Mayo were burned to death in a locked farm bothy – it burdens itself both with a slightly predictable modern family drama, and a mystical dream layer in which Michael relives the tragedy through visions. Neither is easy to handle or entirely convincing, although young Glasgow-Irish actor Ryan Hunter – making his professional debut as Michael – builds a powerful, poignant link between the two narratives.

Yet still, there’s a force behind this play that somehow lifts it well clear of its weaknesses; a passion to tell a story largely untold in Scotland, to name the dead, and to confront the culture of bigotry and hostility towards Irish Catholic migrants that disfigured 19th and early 20th century Scotland, and that persists today in a lingering culture of sectarianism.

There is a reopening of old wounds involved in this story, no question; one of the strongest characters is Michael’s grandmother, played by Anne Kidd, who wants to know nothing about her own mother Molly’s roots in Achill. Yet Michael’s passion to understand his own identity and history is irresistible, for us and for the play’s other characters; and with young Rada graduate Faoilean Cunningham giving a wonderful, compelling performance as the young Molly, and the whole show carried along on a tide of fine live music by Laoise Kelly, Muireann Kelly’s eight-strong company deliver a show to remember, and an important staging-post in Scotland’s long journey towards greater knowledge of itself, through the stories it tells. - Joyce McMillan

*Macrobert, Stirling, 19 September; Eden Court, Inverness, 21 and 22 September; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 24 September and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 27-29 September. Also on Achill Island, Mayo, 5-6 October.