DUNDEE REP is 80 years old this autumn, and the company launch their celebratory season of Dundee plays in magnificent style with Tay Bridge, a powerful new theatre piece by Peter Arnott inspired by one of the most dramatic events in the city’s history.
Tay Bridge, Dundee Rep **** | Crocodile Rock, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****
The collapse in 1879 of the first Tay railway bridge, just 18 months after it was opened, was an event of real horror. Ninety people lost their lives, as a train from Edinburgh crossing the bridge at night, in a violent late-December storm, plunged into the water below; and it might have been expected that a play on the subject from Peter Arnott, one of Scotland’s most broodingly political playwrights, would have dwelt on the flaws in construction that made the collapse inevitable, and the commercial pressures under which the engineers cut corners, and failed to build to the original specification.
Instead, though, Arnott gives us something entirely different, and perhaps more haunting; a series of stories – at first inscrutable, and then increasingly powerful – about an imagined group of people who lost their lives that night, and the hopes and dreams they carried with them into the dark water. There’s the idealistic young schoolteacher who sees himself in the poverty-stricken children he teaches; the recently-widowed minister’s wife appalled by the poverty and inequality of Victorian society; the young couple planning to emigrate to California; the elderly servant whose mistress has just died after a lifelong relationship; the sinister travelling salesman who hints at horrible crimes against women; and the beautifully-dressed lady of easy virtue from Edinburgh, now cast off by her wealthy patron.
All of these are brilliantly sketched and conjured up by the actors of the Dundee Rep Ensemble, Scotland’s only permanent professional acting company, also – by coincidence – celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Irene Macdougall is superb as the minister’s wife, Emily Winter in magnificent form as the lady of easy virtue, Barrie Hunter truly chilling as the salesman. Emily James’s set, built around the image of a rusted and broken North British Railway carriage hauled from the deep, becomes ever more moving and evocative, as we come to realise how the stories of these characters fit together. And what emerges, over 80 minutes, is a thrilling portrait of Scotland at that 19th century moment, with all its inequalities, hypocrisies, tensions and possibilities; gradually gathered together by director Andrew Panton and his company into a stunning conclusion, which offers an unforgettable insight into the terrible sense of shock and tragedy that swept over the city of Dundee, 140 years ago this winter.
The sea crossing contemplated by young Steven, the hero of the new solo musical that opens the autumn season at A Play, A Pie And A Pint in Glasgow, has never been blighted by a tragedy on the scale of the Tay Bridge disaster; but all the same, for him the short journey from his home in Millport, across the firth of Clyde to Glasgow, takes more courage than some of us have to muster in a lifetime. For Steven, growing up gay in early-1990s Millport is something of a nightmare; his macho Dad wants him to follow in his footsteps as football-loving landlord of a hard-drinking pub, the boy he loves makes sure he is ostracised at school after poor Steven tries to kiss him, and half the time Steven doesn’t even have a name for the problems he faces.
All of that begins to change, though, when a non-binary figure called Vincente comes to stay at Steven’s Mum’s B&B; and in no time, Steven is trying on makeup, and startling his mum by wobbling downstairs in a glittering gown and stylish stilettos. The truth about Andy McGregor’s delightful, funny yet hard-hitting musical, brilliantly performed and sung by Darren Brownlie with musical support from Gavin Whitworth and Gary Cameron, is that in terms of sexual politics, it needs to be slightly clearer about what it’s saying. It may be obvious to Andy McGregor and his company that not all gay people are cross-dressers, not all cross-dressers are gay, and there are many gay and non-binary lifestyles that don’t involve becoming a Glasgow drag queen; but elsewhere in our culture, those stereotypes persist, and in failing even to mention any other possible ways forward for a gay teenager in Steven’s position, Crocodile Rock sometimes risks playing up to them. For Steven, though, the life he finds through Vincente’s gift is absolutely his best life; and the sheer radiance of Darren Brownlie’s performance, combined with some lovely, heartfelt songs, makes it impossible to begrudge him a moment of it.
Tay Bridge until 21 September; Crocodile Rock, final performance today.
*This review was updated on 2 September 2019 in order to expand the penultimate sentence. This sentence originally read “The truth about Andy McGregor’s delightful, funny yet hard-hitting musical, brilliantly performed and sung by Darren Brownlie with musical support from Gavin Whitworth and Gary Cameron, is that it needs to sort out its gender politics a bit; not all gay people are cross-dressers, not all cross-dressers are gay, and there are many gay and non-binary lifestyles that don’t involve becoming a Glasgow drag queen.” The star rating was also changed from 3stars to 4stars, as this was the reviewer’s intended star rating.