Joyce McMillan: Pylon is part of the rich tradition of Scottish protest theatre

Pylon's one-off show at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow on 15 September is to be followed by national tour in 2019
Pylon's one-off show at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow on 15 September is to be followed by national tour in 2019
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All good theatre has a message of sorts; as an act of communication, a show always says something, even if it’s only that life is short, and we might as well tap dance and be merry. Sometimes, though, a piece of theatre emerges with a theme and intention so specific that no-one could mistake it; a particular story that could have been – sometimes has been – pursued through news stories, pamphlets, online campaigns, television or film documentaries, but that somehow needs to be told again, in the shared space of a theatre or hall.

All good theatre has a message of sorts; as an act of communication, a show always says something, even if it’s only that life is short, and we might as well tap dance and be merry. Sometimes, though, a piece of theatre emerges with a theme and intention so specific that no-one could mistake it; a particular story that could have been – sometimes has been – pursued through news stories, pamphlets, online campaigns, television or film documentaries, but that somehow needs to be told again, in the shared space of a theatre or hall.

In the last year, one of those shows has emerged onto the Scottish stage, unsubsidised and largely unsupported, driven only by its own fierce need to communicate; and last weekend, the four young Kilmarnock men who created it took the step of hiring the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow for one night only – a remarkable night, cheered to the echo by a near-capacity audience – in order to give their story a chance of moving onto a wider Scottish stage.

The show is called Pylon, and is inspired by events that took place 20 years ago in the Kilmarnock community of Shortlees – a typical Scottish council estate remarkable for the fact that in the 1970s, a line of tall electricity pylons was built right through it, often within a few metres of the houses. In the mid-1990s, residents began to notice what seemed like an epidemic of cancer diagnoses in the area near the pylons, and to ask questions about the level and type of radiation coming from them; and their struggle to find answers is faithfully reflected in the show, which takes the form of a monologue by a character called Davie McFarlane (not a real name, although based on a real-life character), driven along by a fierce score of original rock songs delivered by a seven-strong band, and backed by striking video and still images.

“We all grew up in Shortlees,” says Paul Montgomery, who plays Davie in the show, and co-wrote the script with musician, composer and writer Graeme Cameron, “so we kind of knew this story from our childhood. Graeme was maybe 10 or 11 when all this was happening; and a few years ago, he began to piece together some memories, and work on a few songs about it. We all work full-time, but we knew each other from playing together in a band at weekends – me and Graeme, Steven Smith and Paul Milligan.

“And this show just began to grow out of that. Graeme did loads of research, and we went around talking to people who lived in Shortlees at the time; Graeme also put some of his own money into it, so that we could commission people to make the film elements. And then last year, we felt ready to hire the Palace Theatre in Kilmarnock for a night, with some extra musicians, to see how it would go. We just had no idea how it was going to be received; I’ve never been so nervous in my life. But we covered our costs, and since then – well the reaction has been beyond our wildest dreams, to be honest.”

In March this year, the Pylon company took part in BEAM 2018 at Stratford East in London, an initiative which invites emerging musical theatre companies from across the UK to pitch their work to industry professionals; and now they hope that the show might have a longer life, touring to communities across Scotland.

The question remains open, of course, about how much real impact a campaigning theatre show can have. Scotland has a long and rich history of agitprop theatre with strong musical content, dating back beyond the 7:84 Scotland and Wildcat companies of the 1970s, whose work may have influenced public attitudes on issues ranging from land ownership to the poll tax. Some shows – like the 2008 Fringe hit Deep Cut, about the deaths of four young British army recruits at Deepcut training barracks – can claim a role in keeping contentious issues and possible scandals on the political agenda; in 2014, the Scottish company Dogstar produced a furious show called Factor 9 – about the scandal of haemophiliacs treated by the NHS with HIV and hepatitis-infected blood – in support of the campaign which led to the opening of a new UK government inquiry into the affair, earlier this year.

What the Pylon company has created, though, is a show which is not only about the Shortlees pylons and their possible health impacts – still unknown, following the removal of the pylons a decade ago – but also about the relative powerlessness of working-class communities in our post-industrial world. One of the most striking moments in Pylon comes when Graeme Cameron, as one of the masked band members, suddenly becomes the embodiment of Davie’s inner doubts about his right to try to speak out, on behalf of his community; and the tone and structure of the monologue narrative has the slow-moving, repetitive quality of an almost mythical story told at a social gathering, the product of a working-class oral tradition that has its own sense of poetry, too rarely reflected in our mainstream culture.

“For us, this is a play about our people, our parents,” says Montgomery. “It’s very emotional for us. And I think what people feel in response to it is often a weird sense of relief that this story is back out there at last. It gives a people a sense of legitimacy about their worries and their fears; and it says that no matter who you are, or where you come from, you have the right to ask questions about things that affect your life. We hope that’s helpful to some people; it’s been really powerful for us. And now, we’re just hoping we can keep it moving forward.”