THINGS have changed, in the 21 years since Stephen Greenhorn’s much-loved Passing Places first appeared at the Traverse. The coming of the mobile phone has altered our sense of place, making it far more difficult to disappear from the map than it once was; so it’s perhaps wise of director Andrew Panton, in this new Dundee Rep revival, to leave the play firmly in the 1990s, in the age of clapped-out Ladas and public payphones.
Dundee Rep **** | Oran Mor, Glasgow **** | Tron, Glasgow ****
In every other respect, though, the Scotland – or series of Scotlands – conjured up in Greenhorn’s play remain completely recognisable. Our hapless hero Alex might well still be employed by the psychotic Motherwell sports-shop owner Binks, might well still be coshed and robbed by local neds, might well get the sack for his trouble. And he and his brainy unemployed friend Brian might well flee the scene in Brian’s brother’s clapped-out motor, heading north to Thurso with Binks’s pride and joy, the surfboard from the shop window; only to find themselves in a strange land that is somehow supposed to be their own.
Greenhorn’s portrait of a Highland landscape full of electric crofts and international new age travellers is perhaps more entertaining and symbolic than accurate. Yet Panton’s merry and thoughtful production, featuring fine central performances from Ewan Donald and Martin Quinn, takes full theatrical advantage of its comic and musical potential; with the rest of the seven-strong cast, doubling brilliantly as the live on-stage band, in an upbeat production that nonetheless acknowledges Greenhorn’s sense of the deep historic damage suffered by people in post-industrial working-class communities across central Scotland, and of how coming to know their own country – in all its beauty and variety – can be part of a healing process, slow and unsettling, but intensely worthwhile.
It’s a far cry from Thurso to Westminster; but it’s there, in the office of a suave Tory minister called Ian, that the actor and writer Meghan Tyler sets her debut play for A Play, A Pie And A Pint. Ian has a plan to stir up a bit of popular enthusiasm by proposing to reintroduce the death penalty; but to start the campaign, he needs the support of other parties. Hence the arrival in Ian’s office of Kirsten from the SNP and Mary from the DUP; and the beginning of a long, complicated night, during which the three eventually take to drowning their sorrows in Ian’s office supply of port and brandy.
The play’s title refers to the fact that, according to Kirsten, the ancient Persians used to reach important decisions by first discussing them while roaring drunk, and then repeating the discussion when sober and hungover; although in the end, this trio decide very little. Along the way, though, Tyler’s play achieves some sharp observation about Westminster’s attitudes to “the Celts”, and the Celts’ attitudes to themselves; carried through with terrific flair, in Paul Brotherston’s production, by Liam Brennan, Irene Allan, and Meghan Tyler herself as Mary, a kind of DUP Mairi Black, as clever and tough as she is vulnerable, and memorably sharp-tongued.
In a quiet way, all these themes of global injustice and loss, and political cynicism and manipulation, come together in Sam Redway’s short solo show Bin Laden – One Man Show, at the Tron this week. Co-written with director Tyrrell Jones, the show adopts the simple but effective device of having Redway tell Bin Laden’s story in the first person, without ever departing from his own persona as a polite well-educated young Englishman.
The effect, of course, is to humanise Bin Laden, and to invite us to empathise with his lifelong struggle for the dignity and autonomy of Muslim people; one man’s terrorist, after all, is always another’s freedom fighter. Significantly, the story ends at the point of the attack on the Twin Towers; it’s hard to empathise with a strategy that involves killing 3,000 innocent civilians at one blow. Yet this remains a hugely challenging and interesting show that invites us, for a while, to consider Bin Laden as something more than a hate figure; and to think again about the double standards we apply in deciding which acts of violence to condemn, or when 3,000 civilian lives should be valued and mourned, and when sacrificed without a second thought.
Passing Places is at Dundee Rep until 5 May, and the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, from 8-12 May. Persians is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, today, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 1-5 May. Bin Laden - One Man Show is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, final performance today.