There’s something infinitely tantalising about Robert Dawson Scott’s new play The Electrifying Mr Johnston, now on tour across Scotland in a small production by Mull Theatre, part of Comar arts. The subject is a magnificent one: the too-easily-forgotten life and works of Scotland’s great wartime secretary of state Tom Johnston and his evolution from young Independent Labour Party firebrand to a towering establishment figure who served in Churchill’s war cabinet and, in the late 1940s, wheeled and dealt his way relentlessly through his mighty and still debatable project to bring hydro-electric power to the Highlands.
The Electrifying Mr Johnston, The Studio, Edinburgh ***
Miss Julie, Perth Theatre ****
Little Gift, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ***
In itself, Alasdair McCrone’s light-touch production is a genial and highly informative 65-minute introduction to the subject. The play tackles Johnston’s story by introducing the character of a young would-be journalist who meets Johnston in his pomp as a member of the war cabinet, but gradually becomes critical of the fierce top-down methods he uses to push his hydro-electric project through.
It’s a device that works well enough – in the capable hands of Stephen Clyde as Johnston, an excellent Alan MacKenzie as young Alex and Beth Marshall in a variety of female roles – in pushing us through the story and making space for plenty of exposition of the facts.
In the end, the overall effect is more like a lively preliminary to a discussion about the past and future of the Highlands than a full-blown drama; what’s tantalising is the presence in this material of the potential for a truly great full-length play about the moral compromises entailed in practical politics, as they played out at this key post-war moment in Scottish history.
The enthusiastic audiences rolling up for this simple, well-crafted touring show, though, demonstrate what a huge appetite there is for serious drama about recent Scottish history, that also enables us to debate our future; perhaps Scotland’s mainstage theatres should take note and give the idea some thought.
At Perth Theatre, meanwhile, the spring season opens with a tense and good-looking production by young Cross Trust Award winner Shilpa T-Hyland of Strindberg’s still-shocking 1889 classic of class and gender politics Miss Julie. Zinnie Harris’ 2006 version sets the play in a world not far from the one Tom Johnston encountered, in his efforts to modernise the Highlands; the year is 1926, the General Strike is in full swing and Strindberg’s three characters – the serving-man John, his fiancee Christine and the restless daughter of the house, Julie – meet in what might be the kitchen of a country house in Perthshire, for their famous midsummer’s night encounter.
In the end, T-Hyland’s production doesn’t quite make it into the big league of unforgettable Miss Julies; it just fails to cope with the melodramatic intensity of the play’s conclusion, and isn’t helped, on this occasion, by the sometimes brusque modernity of Harris’ version. It features three strong and intriguing performances, though, from Lorn Macdonald, Helen McKay and Hiftu Quasem, and the show – presented in Perth’s new Joan Knight Studio – looks and sounds stunning throughout, with composer Michael J McCarthy, designer Jen McGinley and lighting designer Grant Anderson pulling out all the stops to help create a beautiful and hugely professional piece of theatre.
The Traverse, meanwhile, received a short visit from a tiny but delightful children’s show, in the shape of M6 Theatre of Rochdale’s Little Gift, co-created by Scottish children’s theatre star Andy Manley. For me, there is something slightly out-of-kilter about a show that borrows its visual imagery from the idea of an old-fashioned railway porter surrounded by suitcases, but then embarks on a story that heads in a completely different direction, towards a tale of redemption for a lonely old man through the gift of a tiny plant.
If the conjunction of plot and set makes little sense, though, the detail of the show is charming, with some gorgeous simple puppetry and sound, and a lovely solo performance from Guy Hargreaves; and although Little Gift is not one of those sublime children’s shows where every aspect of the story combines in a perfect whole, it still keeps its tiny audience-members enthralled, for a kindly and magical 50 minutes. - Joyce McMillan
The Electrifying Mr Johnson is on tour until 9 March. Miss Julie is at Perth Theatre until 23 February. Little Gift is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on 27 February, Paisley Arts Centre 1-2 March, and Eastwood Park Theatre, Giffnock, on 3 March.