The place where communing with nature and the demands of modernity meet are explored in two thought-provoking plays set on Scotland’s fringes
Dalgety - Oran Mor, Glasgow
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Calum’s Road - Webster Theatre, Arbroath
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Hello Dolly! - Pitlochry Festival Theatre
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SUMMER arrives at last; and Scottish theatre hits the road, suddenly aware of the vast and varied country beyond the cities. First stop, this year, is Dalgety Bay, just across the Forth from Edinburgh. It consists mainly of a new housing development, and is not Scotland’s most famous township, but it is the setting for a new short two-hander by Scotland’s leading playwright David Greig, which provides a rousing finale for this spring’s Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season.
Written for the Theatre Uncut series of political dramas directed by Emma Callendar, Dalgety is not so much a piece of polemic as a light-touch fantasy – with plenty of comedy – in which two police officers, an elderly male sergeant and a young female constable, find themselves marooned in Dalgety Bay’s small cop-shop, while the world outside undergoes increasingly mysterious changes. The first sign of trouble appears in the shape of what seems to be the Naked Rambler, and in no time at all, Jock and Belinda find themselves surrounded not by Tesco’s car park and other suburban clutter, but by a bronze-age forest in which a naked tribe gather under a tree, to sing one of their womenfolk through the birth of her child.
The point of the play is to contrast the pinched, joyless and workaholic quality of Jock and Belinda’s 21st-century lives – in which a treat for a young woman in her prime is an evening on a solitary exercise bike in front of the television – with the fierce natural and erotic energy of the tribe. And although Greig deploys the usual clichés about small-town Scotland with shameless abandon – “we can’t have nudity in Fife!” is a big laugh-line, delivered with perfect emphasis by the great John Bett as Jock – he also creates a terrific central character in Belinda, beautifully played by Lesley Hart, who goes out to speak to the tribe, and returns stark naked and transformed, into a woman at one with herself.
There’s no such sensual abandon in the story of Calum’s Road, set on the island of Raasay between the 1960s and the present day, and transformed in 2011 into a powerful National Theatre of Scotland show, co-produced with Communicado Theatre, and now once again on tour. Yet like Dalgety, Calum’s Road describes the life of a people living in harmony with nature, in North Raasay; and finding themselves in conflict with the modern state, which does not respect their way of life, and will not even provide them with a road over the hill, to help the community survive.
Or at least, so says the story’s real-life hero, Calum MacLeod, who after years of bureaucratic delay and obstruction, sets out with pick, barrow and shovel to build the road himself, two miles of it from his own front door, to where the nearest tarmac road ends; and there are moments when David Harrower’s complex text – with its constantly shifting time-frames and repetitions, and its doubling of characters across generations – seems to be making a bit of a meal of what should be a simple and powerful storytelling job.
Yet Gerry Mulgrew’s staging – for an energetic and sweet-voiced cast of six, led by a fine Iain Macrae as Calum – is joyful and ingenious, as is Alasdair Macrae’s music, often influenced by the great harmonies of Gaelic psalm-singing. And John McGeoch’s video design offers a series of big-screen images that gives us a powerful sense of Raasay’s landscape and presence, and lets us sense the dynamic between leaving and staying that divides Calum from so many who were once his neighbours, and still helps define the lives of those who were born on Raasay, even today.
Up at Scotland’s Theatre In The Hills, meanwhile, the Pitlochry Festival Theatre company chooses not to reflect on the landscape around it, but to compete with the West End and Broadway, in staging large-scale musicals that, at their best, offer an unrivalled evening’s entertainment. The company was at its best with last winter’s memorable version of White Christmas, a story full of resonances for a generation reassessing its postwar history, and packed with memorable song-and-dance numbers.
They are on slightly less persuasive form, though, with the spectacular production of Hello, Dolly! that launches the 2013 summer season. In technical terms, the production is as fine an achievement as ever, with gorgeous parasol-themed sets and costumes by Adrian Rees that capture the buoyant mood of early-20th-century New York, excellent choreography by Chris Stuart-Wilson, and the usual Pitlochry combination of a fine live band and onstage actor-musicians, all directed by Jon Beales.
The problem with Hello, Dolly!. though. is that the story is silly, old-fashioned, and ferociously sexist in its attitudes to both men and women. Nor is the music, alas, anything to write home about, with only two memorable songs in a long evening. Like every other form of theatre, a good musical needs a sense of mission, something to say to the audience that justifies all the effort, the costumes, the set design, the makeup and the beautifully rehearsed musical numbers; and despite a fine, deep-voiced central performance from Basienka Blake as Dolly, this show finally lacks the real engine-power that might lift it out of the ordinary, and make it look like something more than a minor Broadway musical, 50 years old, and increasingly out of time.
• Dalgety is at Oran Mor until 8 June; Calum’s Road is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from tonight until 8 June, and on tour until 28 June; Hello, Dolly! is in repertoire at Pitlochgry Festival Theatre until 17 October.