ON THE stage at the Citizens’ Theatre – about to go dark for the first time in its 140 year history, to make way for a two-year rebuilding programme – the ghosts are gathering. They’re a pretty robust-looking crowd, of course, a community cast of more than 50 led by actor and writer Alan McHugh, as the theatre’s sometime manager Mr Waldon. Yet all the same, these are the troubled spirits of the people who witnessed the death, one evening in 1918, of a well-known theatre doorman who stepped under the wheels of a Gorbals Street tram; and after a hundred years of restless haunting, with the theatre at a new turning-point in its history, it seems like time for the truth to be told about his sad end, and the reasons for it.
Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow **** | Oran Mor, Glasgow *** | The Basement Theatre, Edinburgh ****
Around this scenario, playwright Peter Arnott and director Guy Hollands weave a gripping and sometimes impressive 80 minute drama, which both acknowledges the centenary of the end of the First World War, and pulls no punches about how that conflict, and the huge sacrifice it demanded, drove deep divisions through the heart of British society, and even through individual families. The acting is sometimes variable, but the staging is always impressive, in settings that range from a dream-like evocation of a bloody Flanders battlefield to a gorgeous backdrop of Gorbals Street as it was a century ago, a bustling canyon of grubby closes and impressive public buildings. And when – with the story told at last – the ghosts disappear in a sudden fade to black, it seems hard to imagine a more fitting and thoughtful conclusion to the first 140 years of the Citizens’ history, as it moves on to new times.
There’s also more than a touch of Glasgow showbiz flair about Martin McCormick’s latest play, a rapid follow-up to his recent Tron and Traverse success with Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths. The First Dance is a no-holds-barred one-hour exploration of the triangular relationship that develops when a bride-to-be called Rhoda, played with an oddly touching ferocity by Jo Freer, takes on dance teacher Gavin to choreograph the first wedding dance between her and her future husband, Terence.
It soon emerges that Rhoda and Terence are no ordinary couple; both are dedicated members of a devout Christian sect which has “saved” Terence, now set to complete his salvation by marrying Rhoda. Over time, though, Terence begins to seem happier in Gavin’s company than in the shrill and fretful Rhoda’s; and by the time the truth about his past life comes out, it’s already clear that the final duet is not going to be the one Rhoda imagined.
In Kenny Miller’s production, the whole play adopts a miles-over-the-top style that’s both hugely entertaining and a shade unkind, particularly – in a vaguely misogynistic way – to poor Rhoda. Yet with Darren Brownlie conjuring up a memorable gay hero in poor bereaved Gavin, The First Dance emerges as an enjoyable play for today; and one not without its points to make the price of religious hypocrisy, and the absolute joy of finally learning to dance with whoever suits us best.
There’s much more of a sense of hard reality, though, in Lisa Nicoll’s new play Shattered, now on tour in a new production by InMotion Theatre. Here, the two central characters are a couple still lost in grief, three years on, over the cot death of their adored baby daughter; and Nicola Roy and Gavin Jon Wright turn in two shockingly powerful performances as Lucy – who now spends most of her day at the window, spying on the daily routines of the neighbours who no longer acknowledge her existence – and Ben, driven into exile by his wife’s consuming sorrow, and struggling, as Father’s Day looms again, to find any space for his own grief.
Shattered is given a memorably cool and stylish production by director Jordan Blackwood and designer Fraser Lappin, which only serves to throw into relief the intense emotion of the two main characters. Nebli Basani and Kirsty Findlay offer strong support as passers-by and witnesses; and if there is a glimmer of hope at the end, it’s perhaps about recognising the moment when mourning has to shift its ground – never ending, but changing, as the years roll by.
A Night To Remember is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, final performance tonight. The First Dance is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today. Shattered is on tour across Scotland until 16 June.