There’s plenty to love about this stately festival co-production between the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Scotland’s woman-led company Stellar Quines, designed as part of this year’s book festival strand dealing with the experience of refugees and migrants.
Based word-for-word on Alice Munro’s much- loved short story collection, this one-hour play, adapted by Linda McLean and directed by Marilyn Imrie, tells the story of Munro’s ancestors, the Laidlaw family from the Borders, who set sail from Leith Docks in the early 19th century to make a new life in Canada.
The show also boasts a fine score by Pippa Murphy based on the vigorous hymn-singing that was so much part of Scottish Lowland culture, an impressive five-strong cast led by Lewis Howden as the old patriarch James, movement by leading choreographer Janice Parker, and a near-perfect setting in St Mark’s Church, all everyday piety and intense respectability.
What the show does not do, though, is to create the promised “powerful drama” out of this Scottish migrant experience; the story of the Laidlaws’ successful crossing lacks dramatic tension, and ends up looking oddly like the kind of worsted-and-shawl drama once produced for schools television, to teach Scottish history in palatable form. Perhaps Munro’s gently probing narrative prose is unusually resistant to dramatisation; but strangely, it’s only at the end – when the excellent Sally Reid, who plays James’s daughter-in-law Agnes, narrates Munro’s simple account of what happened to the family in Canada – that we sense the drama beyond the end of this story, and a part of Laidlaw history that might truly make powerful theatre.
Until 29 August. Today 12:30pm.