WHAT’S the point of writing a new stage musical in the second decade of the 21st century? If the answer is to skewer the follies, corruptions and joys of the society around you while having indecent amounts of fun – and that’s what many of the best musicals have always done, from West Side Story to Rent – then the young Glasgow playwright, director and composer Andy McGregor is working in a great tradition; and never more so than with his smash-hit 2017 Play, Pie And Pint show Spuds, in which a down-at-heel Glasgow West Ender called David – widowed, heartbroken and penniless – suddenly finds his way to wealth when he realises that he can make a hallucinogenic drug out of the chips from his local chippie.
Spuds, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****
Ghost, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh ***
Allan Stewart’s Big, Big Variety Show, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ***
Sometimes described as Byres Road’s answer to Breaking Bad, Spuds lasts for barely an hour, but spirals through a surprisingly complex tale of David’s decline into a world of criminality and violence, with his cash-hungry daughter Daisy egging him on. Add the essential cavorting figure of Toni the chip-shop owner, and you have a riotous, near-perfect three-handed musical comedy, enlivened by at least half a dozen clever, on-the-nose songs both funny and lyrical, and a chorus of extras who mostly play Spuds-addicted punters queuing in David’s shop. Richard Conlon and Dawn Sievewright are both hilarious and magnificent as David and Daisy; Darren Brownlie also sings brilliantly, while playing Toni with all the restraint of a distraught daddy-long-legs about to be fried in batter. And Gavin Whitworth tinkles the ivories heroically throughout, in what’s possibly the best – and certainly the funniest – new musical spawned by A Play, A Pie And A Pint, in the 15 years since the season was founded.
If Spuds is a play for today, then the story of Ghost is perhaps beginning to show its age. First released a film in 1990, Ghost tells the story of perfect New York couple Sam and Molly – he a banker, she an artist – whose idyll is shattered when he is shot and killed near their beautiful Brooklyn apartment. Sam is not entirely dead, though, but trapped in kind of limbo; and the narrative of the film – and now of the 2011 stage musical – reflects his desperate struggle, with the help of a dodgy caricature of a spiritualist medium, Oda Mae, to tell the grief-stricken Molly what he knows about his own death, and about the danger that still stalks her.
Like the film, the musical benefits from the power of its 1950s theme song, Unchained Melody. It’s not helped though – either in pace or quality – by an otherwise cloying and repetitive string of love-anthems commissioned from Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard. There’s no fault to be found with Bob Tomson’s modest and fluent touring production, or with a quartet of attractive central performances from Nigel Sheehy, Jacqui Dubois, Sergio Pasquariello, and Rebekah Lowings, in sweet and beautiful voice as Molly. For all their talent and effort, though, there’s something about the profound romantic self-absorption of the story that seems completely out of time; as if we, the audience, now need to move on, even more than Sam does.
Meanwhile, at the King’s Theatre, the Allan Stewart Big, Big Variety show returns, with King’s panto stars Allan Stewart – who also produces the show – and Grant Stott much in evidence as the well-loved anchormen of a traditional variety night that also features six-strong Scottish singing group Soul Nation, wacky Britain’s Got Talent magician Mandy Muden and the British-Armenian comedian and musician Kev Orkian, all backed by the excellent on-stage Andy Pickering Orchestra.
The evening could perhaps use one more physical act to vary the pace; and I could have done without the heavy-handed introduction of a few dodgy ethnic jokes by the brilliantly talented Kev Orkian, who surely has no need of such material. Both Stewart and Stott are in fine form, though, with Stewart producing a bold geriatric version of Bohemian Rhapsody, and Stott at his brilliant anecdotal best; and if Stewart is in the mood to continue his campaign to save variety as an art-form, then he can be certain he has the Edinburgh King’s audience on his side.
Spuds, final performance today. Ghost is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, today, and at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, from 25-20 March. Allan Stewart’s Big, Big Variety Show, final performances today.