It was Britain’s “finest hour”; the summer of the battle of Britain, and the month of what Churchill described as the near-miraculous evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk. Yet despite the official “fake news” of a complete and successful withdrawal from France, some 10,000 Scottish troops of the 51st Division had been abandoned, facing the full might of the advancing German forces. And this fine new one-hour play for A Play, A Pie And A Pint – by screenwriter, playwright and River City star Stuart Hepburn – is the remarkable story, based on extensive factual research, of one of the survivors of that terrible defeat and betrayal.
The Beaches of St Valery ****
Oran Mor, Glasgow
The Tron, Glasgow
La Cage Aux Folles ***
So it’s perhaps not surprising that Hepburn’s drama takes the form of a memory play, in which the wonderful Ron Donachie plays the elderly Callum Chisholm, remembering the young Inverness man who enlisted so willingly in 1939, with his three closest friends and work-mates. The other three are lost in the terrible carnage; but Callum’s fortunes change when, on a forced prisoner-of-war march through northern France, he encounters a beautiful young French girl with a Scottish accent who helps him to escape.
In Hepburn’s own production – illustrated with haunting black and white photographs of the time – James Rottger and Ashley Smith deliver two perfectly-pitched performances as young Callum and his love Catriona. And what’s striking about the play and the production is its resolute refusal to give this remarkable a story a simple happy ending; or to minimise the utter shock and trauma etched into the faces of the survivors of such a conflict, even if they find a peaceful haven in the end.
In that sense, The Beaches of St Valery makes an interesting companion piece to Zendeh Theatre of Newcastle’s latest touring show Transit. Set in a departure lounge at Schiphol airport in the summer of 1988, Transit tells the story of a family torn apart, when Darya’s Iranian mother decides in the late 1970s that she can no longer live in Britain with her English husband and daughters. Forced to choose, nine-year-old Darya leaves with her mother; and her life becomes marked and changed by the horrific Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Her ten-years-on conversation with a father she now barely knows is therefore fraught with pain, anger and resentment. And although Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh’s production of a 70-minute part-devised text by Steven Gaythorpe perhaps needs an outside eye to clarify its narrative shape and mood, and to sort out the many different media and images it deploys, it nonetheless offers a heartfelt vision of how forgiveness is sometimes too much to ask, after so much pain; the best Darya can do is to let go, and travel on.
There’s no shortage of happy endings, though, in the wonderful world of the 1983 musical La Cage Aux Folles, a legendary celebration of sexual diversity that now looks its age, but still radiates a fine spirit of human kindness and tolerance. Bill Kenwright’s new touring production features John Partridge of EastEnders fame and fine singer Adrian Zmed as the ageing gay couple Albin and Georges, happily running a transvestite cabaret on the Cote d’Azur, who discover that Georges’s son Jean-Michel, raised as their own, wants Albin to disappear for an evening, so that he can introduce Georges to the right-wing “family values” parents of the girl he wants to marry.
It’s possible to imagine a new version of La Cage which might, under current circumstances, have done more to highlight the seriousness of the explicit threat to gay rights posed by men like Anne’s father, a right-wing politician. Martin Connor’s charming and gorgeous-looking production, though, aims to keep the mood light, despite some deeply-felt moments of family drama; and the cast finally belt out the show’s big anthems I Am What I Am and The Best Of Times Is Now with a glowing energy that defies history and leaves us feeling good, at least for one night.
*The Beaches Of St Valery, final performance today; Transit is at the Tron Theatre tonight, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 14-15 March. La Cage Aux Folles, final performances today, and at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 25-29 July.