Theatre review: The Arrival, Scottish Youth Theatre, Glasgow

The Arrival PIC: John Devlin
The Arrival PIC: John Devlin
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THERE’S a story, told in pictures, about a man arriving in a strange city and trying to make a life there. The story has a familiar mid-20th century look; the man wears a suit and hat, carries a suitcase. Yet the images are beautiful and strange, sometimes fantastical; the new city is truly a new world, a Jules Verne fantasy of beautifully-drawn imaginary landscapes, full of strange plants, animals and architectures.

The Arrival, Scottish Youth Theatre, Glasgow ****

And if the story of migration it tells is an old as humanity itself, it offers a unique sense of how it feels to leave one world for another; to recognise very little, to understand no word of written or spoken language, to long for loved ones left behind, and to be scared to death by a household pet that, at first, looks like a little monster.

This is Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, first published in Australia in 2006, and one of the most acclaimed graphic novels of the new millennium, loved by children and adults alike; and it’s both fascinating and moving to see it brought to life by Solar Bear, Scotland’s leading theatre company working with young deaf people. In this version by director Jonathan Lloyd and his four-strong acting company, Tan’s story is interwoven with more direct reflections on the history of Scotland as a place of emigration and immigration; there are images of 1960s migrants leaving Scotland on an old Empress liner, or the voices of a generation of new Scots, talking about the role of tea-drinking in binding together the different cultures that have made them.

At the core of the show, though, is the company’s beautiful and vivid theatrical retelling of Tan’s story. There’s puppetry and paper sculpture, as the company evokes the man’s journey across the ocean. The four actors take on dozens of roles, as he looks for a room, struggles with strange food, finds work; and at the heart of the narrative lie three beautiful performances from Craig McCulloch, Moira Anne McAuslan and Kirsty Eila McIntyre as the man, his wife and his daughter, supported by some terrific comic cameos from Jatinder Randhawa, and by Niroshini Shambar’s exquisite, deceptively simple musical score. At its best, the show achieves a rare balance between live performance, and the beautiful, strange and meditative quality of the finest animated film; and its message of shared humanity, and of the ancient human imperative to offer welcome to strangers, is as clear and urgent as it is richly expressed.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

On tour to Dundee, Inverness, Carlops and Livingston, until 26 October.