IT’S only a few weeks since Peter Arnott’s brilliant Tay Bridge opened at Dundee Rep, launching the Rep’s 80th anniversary season of Dundee plays with a thoughtful and spectacular meditation on the great Tay Bridge disaster of 1879. Yet now – via the autumn Play, Pie and Pint season – here comes an unexpected bonus, in the shape of a spin-off monologue for the signalman, Thomas Barclay, who waved the doomed Edinburgh-Dundee train through on to the bridge, on that fateful winter night; and who – 40 years on, in 1919 – still cannot rid himself of a lingering sense of guilt.
The Signalman, Oran Mor, Glasgow **** | A Taste of Honey, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh **** | The Hound of the Baskervilles, Tron Theatre, Glasgow ***
In Ken Alexander’s beautifully-pitched production – with music and sound by Jon Beales – Tom McGovern plays the 64-year-old Barclay with a depth of feeling partly explained by his own long-term commitment to the project, which he has been discussing with Arnott for years. Using transcripts of the public inquiry into the collapse of the bridge, Arnott explores the investigators’ burning need to allocate blame, and Barclay’s profound sense that had things gone differently, he could easily have become the chosen public scapegoat.
Part of the genius of Arnott’s script lies in a richness of detail that links 1879 to 1919, and 1919 to 2019, in a seamless story of human suffering, folly, decency and progress, here in Scotland; and if Thomas’s tale is finally not the wholly heroic one that narrative seems to demand, there is still a profound and unforgettable heroism in this story of an ordinary life changed forever by a single terrible experience, before Thomas Barclay had even reached his 25th birthday.
There’s also a fine sense of history in the National Theatre’s current touring version of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste Of Honey, now playing its only Scottish dates in Edinburgh. Born and raised in Salford, Delaney was only 19 years old in 1958, when A Taste of Honey opened in London; and ever since, her first play has been a byword both for the new frankness about sex, race and class that swept through British theatre in the 1960s, and for the possibility of a powerful female voice in that theatre culture.
In this production by Bijan Sheibani, Gemma Dobson and Jodie Prenger take up the roles of mouthy teenager Jo, and her good-time girl mum Helen, on a set by Hildegard Bechtler that combines the scruffy interior of Helen and Jo’s Salford room-and-kitchen, with a sense of one of the smoky 1950s bars where Helen comes into her own. There’s a jazz trio on stage; and Prenger delivers – with relish – some steamy jazz-blues numbers, in a production where almost every character occasionally breaks into song.
As ever, though, the most striking aspect of Delaney’s play is the epic fizz and crackle of the dialogue between Jo and Helen, two powerful women neither of whom is silenced for a moment either by imminent teenage single motherhood in Jo’s case, or abusive middle-aged relationships in Helen’s. Delaney’s gift was to bring the sheer eloquence and impact of working-class female language to the stage, with a force that helped changed British theatre for good; and Prenger and Dobson give that energy its full value, in a sparkling and heartfelt no-holds-barred production that Delaney herself would almost certainly have loved.
Northern Stage of Newcastle’s new version of the Sherlock Holmes story The Hound of the Baskervilles seems, by contrast, to make a far less satisfactory job of linking past to present. Written by Douglas Maxwell and directed by Jake Smith – and playing slightly incongruously in the Changing House studio at the Tron – the production is designed for small-scale touring, telling Conan Doyle’s complex and spectacular story via a tiny set, and a cast of just four players.
In the texture of Maxwell’s script, there is an effort to explore some of the dark historic and societal undertones of the story. In performance, though, any attempt to unravel Holmes’s traditional image tends to be overwhelmed by jolly Edwardian costumes and accents; and by the sheer Fringe-theatre larkiness of a production that requires the actors to double and treble roles at dizzying speed, in a style that’s ingenious enough to keep the audience amused, but that seems, in this case, to make any deeper response to the story almost impossible.
The Signalman is at Oran Mor today, and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 1-5 October. A Taste Of Honey, final performances today. The Hound Of The Baskervilles, final performance tonight.