DON’T expect theatrical fireworks from Hannah Lavery’s solo show The Drift, now on a short tour under the banner of the National Theatre of Scotland. Born of the world of poetry readings and serious spoken word, it is a quiet, meditative affair; and it badly needs a little more vocal dynamism and energy to give the text its full value in performance, even in a space as modest as the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen.
The Drift, Lemon Tree, Aberdeen **** | The Stornoway Way, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh *** | Annie, Playhouse, Edinburgh *** Yet for all that, there’s something so essential, and so moving, about Hannah Lavery’s text that it absolutely demands attention. Lavery’s subject – dealt with in layer after layer of complexity – is the experience of growing up black or mixed-race in a Scotland that often prides itself on its inclusive approach to citizenship, but is still profoundly unused to dealing with real-life racial and cultural diversity. Brought up in Edinburgh as the child of an English mum and a dad of mixed-race heritage who was himself born in Edinburgh in the 1940s, Lavery still feels many layers of rage, both at the everyday racism experienced by her father, herself, and now her own children, and at her father himself, who left her and her mother when she was only two.
Through memories of her dad, conversations with her sons, and her own lifelong meditation on how to live with her anger and transform it into poetry, Lavery weaves a web of words whose tone is as much sorrowful as angry.
Some sequences seem like memories of everyday conversations, some have a soaring lyrical beauty; and with the NTS supporting her monologue with lovely, understated design and video by Kirsty Currie, and direction by Eve Nicol, Lavery succeeds in throwing down a vital challenge to the people of Scotland, to face up to Scotland’s long history of complicity in colonialism and racism, to listen to the stories of those most deeply touched by that history, and to begin to change.
A much more familiar kind of Scottish self-analysis features in Kevin MacNeil’s acclaimed 2005 novel The Stornoway Way, now transformed into a stage show by MacNeil himself, for Dogstar Theatre and An Lanntair. The central character is Roman, a gifted musician of 30 or so who has busked his way around Europe, but is now back home in Stornoway steadily drinking himself to death, despite all the efforts of his best friend Eilidh to persuade him to “choose life”.
It is, of course, an instantly recognisable narrative of Scottish male self-destruction; and Matthew Zajac’s production takes the interesting step of having all three characters – Roman, Eilidh, and a range of others – played by young women, with Naomi Stirrat delivering a disturbingly powerful and moving performance as Roman, often expressed through fine songs specially written by MacNeil, with Willie Campbell and Colin Macleod. Yet there’s a sense that the show never quite gets to grips with the alleged special relationship between island culture, Scottish culture and alcoholism that drives Roman’s story; and that in trying to make the leap from page to stage, it leaves too much of the book’s dialogue intact and lengthy, instead of fully grasping that when it comes to theatre, fewer words often carry more meaning, and pack a stronger emotional punch.
After all of which, it’s something of a relief to plunge into the unquenchable optimism of American popular culture, as epitomised by little orphan Annie, the parentless red-haired kid in depression America who became the star first of Harold Gray’s popular comic strip, and then – in 1977 – of this hugely popular stage musical by Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.
“The sun’ll come out tomorrow,” sings Annie, as she goes to spend Christmas with Fifth Avenue billionaire Daddy Warbucks, and ends up at the White House, encouraging President Roosevelt to launch the New Deal that saved millions from poverty, and arguably from fascism.
Alex Bourne is terrific as Warbucks, Lesley Joseph gives it hell as evil orphanage superintendent Miss Hannigan, Richard Meek dances like an angel as her scheming brother Rooster. And if some of the drama is cheesy and unsubtle to a fault, no-one seems to mind; in a show that reminds us that lashings of hope are sometimes necessary, particularly in the worst of times.
The Drift is at Heart of Hawick, 8 October, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 10 October and Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 11 October. The Stornoway Way is on tour until 30 October. Annie has final performances at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, today