Martyn James, and other unsung heroes of Scottish theatre

Martyn James as Sir Robert Morton in The Winslow Boy
Martyn James as Sir Robert Morton in The Winslow Boy
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Every time Martyn James took to the stage at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, you sensed a tremendous surge of warmth from the audience. There was something about the actor, who died yesterday after a long illness, that people loved.

It wasn’t charisma exactly, but a generosity of spirit, a willingness to give it a go and a lack of pretension even when playing the grandest of parts. It was James’s voice you heard on the pre-show announcements, a recognition that he embodied everything that is special about the theatre in the hills.

None of this happened overnight. His first summer season at Pitlochry Festival Theatre was in 1976 and it was only ill health that prevented him exceeding his score of 23 seasons after his last run in 2010.

He was made similarly welcome by audiences at Perth Theatre, where he appeared in every season from 1974 to 1984 and others since, eventually clocking up over 200 productions.

This extraordinary accomplishment allowed audiences to see him in all manner of roles and to feel they had some kind of relationship with him. They would stop him in the street, ask what shows he was in and base their bookings on his answers.

What this tells you is how much audiences love one of the unsung aspects of the old repertory system. By fielding the same team of actors in its six summer shows, Pitlochry Festival Theatre generates an enviable sense of community and belonging. Audiences enjoy seeing the same actors tackle different roles even when, as James would freely admit, they were not perfectly suited to the part. People love to savour an actor’s enterprise and skill. And they like the sense of familiarity.

As well as at Pitlochry, you see this happening at Dundee Rep where, uniquely in Britain, there has been a permanent ensemble of actors since 1999. Living and working year-round in the city, these performers are part of the community off-stage and on. In an era of atomised culture in which so many of us engage in the world alone, sitting in isolation at TV screens, games consoles and computer monitors, this communal aspect of live entertainment becomes ever more appealing.

A theatre with a regular ensemble enhances that appeal. It is an appeal that goes beyond the strengths and weaknesses of any particular production to engage our instincts as social animals. In 21st century terms, Martyn James was not famous, yet for the many thousands of people whom he entertained, he felt like part of the family. This is the reason we should laud those theatres that uphold the system this much-loved actor so enthusiastically embodied.

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