Joyce McMillan: Lyceum’s The Weir breaks January silence

Sean O'Callaghan as Francis Hardy in Faith Healer
Sean O'Callaghan as Francis Hardy in Faith Healer
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January; and a deep seasonal silence falls over Scottish theatreland. Visiting shows like The Sound Of Music – finishing its Aberdeen run today – may help to lift the gloom; but essentially, after the Christmas show, professional theatre made in Scotland shuts up shop until February, or as near February as makes no difference.

Except, that is, at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, where, by tradition, a new show always opens in mid-January. This year, it’s Conor McPherson’s wonderful ghost-story drama The Weir, last year it was a stunning John Dove production of Brian Friel’s The Faith Healer, the year before a masterly version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, directed by Tony Cownie; and according to artistic director Mark Thomson, the theatre’s willingness to take a chance on a January show is based on a challenge to two widespread assumptions about making theatre at this time of year.

“In the first place, we find that it’s possible – given the right programming – to sell far more tickets in Edinburgh in January than people think. Our January 2007 production of All My Sons, for example, was one of the most successful shows at the box office that we’ve had during my 13 years at the Lyceum; it’s certainly easier, on balance, for us to sell tickets in January than in June, at the other end of the spring season.

“And the other common assumption is that you simply won’t be able to get the artists you want, because opening a show in mid-January involves rehearsing over Christmas – the company even works in the week between Christmas and New Year, and we lose about five days of rehearsal because of the holiday breaks. Yet although it’s true that some actors just aren’t available over Christmas, we find that it can also work the other way – people like our associate director John Dove, who are very heavily booked up at other times, can find that this is the best time of year to commit to a project in advance.”

And the Glasgow-based actress Lucianne McEvoy, who plays the central role of Valerie in The Weir, agrees that working over the festive season can have some unexpected advantages – even though she and her husband, the actor Peter Collins, have two young children, and he was also appearing in the Citizens’ Christmas show, Rapunzel.

“Of course we wondered how we would cope, both working over Christmas,” she says. “In fact, though, I’ve really enjoyed it. The Weir is such an intense and absorbing play that I think the days away from the rehearsal room have actually helped me to deal with that, to process it, and to come back with fresh ideas. So they’re not exactly ‘lost’ days – it’s just a different rhythm. And there have been other Christmas benefits too, like more seats on the rush-hour trains betwen Glasgow and Edinburgh.”

Over in Glasgow, meanwhile, Dominic Hill of the Citizens’ Theatre points out that the theatre ecology of January in Glasgow is different because of the great Celtic Connections Festival, which involves all the city’s major performance spaces. He also relishes the touring productions the Citizens’ often welcomes in January, and is already in rehearsal for this year’s opening production of Beckett’s Endgame.

In Edinburgh, though, The Weir is already on stage. And although some of the pleasures of producing a brand new Lyceum show so early in the year seem to depend on the fact that it is the only one – providing a midwinter haven for both audiences and artists – there’s no question that it adds a vital element to the landscape of Scottish theatre life; reminding us that there’s a profound pleasure in seeing a great play on a dark January night, at the time of year when human beings traditionally gathered around the camp fire to tell their finest tales, and to savour them without distraction, far into the night.

• The Weir is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 6 February; Endgame at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 4-20 February