Arts preview of 2018: Joyce McMillan on the year ahead in theatre

The year turns, and once again Mystic McMillan unveils her crystal ball. What will happen on Scotland's stages in 2018? Read on'¦.
Titanic: The Musical is in Edinburgh the same week as Stings The Last Ship PIC: Scott RylanderTitanic: The Musical is in Edinburgh the same week as Stings The Last Ship PIC: Scott Rylander
Titanic: The Musical is in Edinburgh the same week as Stings The Last Ship PIC: Scott Rylander


The year begins in a rare frenzy of excitement, as Scotland’s theatre companies await Creative Scotland’s three-yearly announcement of grants to regularly funded organisations, already delayed by more than four months. The mood is brighter than it was a few weeks ago, before Scottish finance minister Derek Mackay’s budget announcement that central government arts funding would broadly be protected for 2018-19; but all the same, companies are heard muttering that they will never subject themselves to such raging financial uncertainty again, if they can possibly avoid it.

The Federation of Scottish Theatres organises a mass outing to Pitlochry Festival Theatre, where the theatre’s regular grant from Creative Scotland forms less than 15 per cent of its annual budget. However, on catching a glimpse of the theatre’s cruise-liner-sized restaurant packed with coach parties, most FST delegates conclude that their theatres would need massive physical reconstruction before they could begin to adopt the Pitlochry model, and fall into a frenzy of brainstorming about other ways of raising additional commercial income. The Lyceum and Citizens’ Theatres make a start by having T-shirts printed up for their January productions of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, and Rona Munro’s Bold Girls; strangely, sales fail to impress.


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The Out of Joint/Royal Court co-production of Rita, Sue And Bob Too storms into the Citizens’ trailing a cloud of controversy and publicity no money could buy, after Royal Court boss Vicky Featherstone’s double decision first to cancel this iconic Eighties play about an older man’s sexual relationship with two young girls, and then to reinstate it. The FST hires a consultant to help Scotland’s theatre companies resolve tensions between commercial exploitation of plays about sex, and ethical behaviour; the consultant takes two years and several surveys to conclude that exploitation is exploitation, whichever way you cut it.


The new Grid Iron/Stellar Quines co-production Bingo! hits the road with a gala premiere at the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh; merchandise available includes bingo cards for the post-show game, packed bingo suppers (sausage rolls included) and cheap fizz. Sales soar, bingo becomes the evening game of choice among Edinburgh and Glasgow hipsters, and Grid Iron and Stellar Quines briefly become the wealthiest companies in Scottish theatre, with “Full House” T-shirts changing hands at prices that rival Bitcoin.


In the search for value-added audience appeal to boost sales for Dominic Hill’s production of four-hour American tragedy A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the Citizens’ hits on the idea of spreading its four acts over a whole day, and providing 1940s-style American snacks, lunch, dinner and drinks in the intervals. Suggestions that they could boost takings even further by offering treats to match the play’s central theme of long-term drug addiction are dismissed by the management as “not funny, and not clever”.


A quiet month. A Play A Pie And A Pint at Oran Mor rustles up a cheeky republican cabaret to celebrate Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle, and – after playing to packed houses – is accused of exploiting royal private lives for mere financial gain.


The National Theatre of Scotland announces that despite its dwindling real-terms budget, it will not be selling premium tickets including champagne picnics for Graham Eatough’s promenade show at North Kelvin Meadows about the world of a young man with autism, The Reason I Jump. Meanwhile, by strange coincidence, Sting’s musical about the death of the shipbuilding industry, The Last Ship, sails into Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre in the same week that the Playhouse hosts Titanic, The Musical. Plans to stage both shows together at Leith Docks, launching and sinking the same ship each evening, are abandoned after it emerges that tickets for the event would cost several thousands of pounds.


Holidays. Rain and wind. Except at Pitlochry, where the sun shines, and five summer shows are now up and running.


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Edinburgh Festival director Fergus Linehan decides it’s time for Scottish theatre to break its silence on the subject of Brexit, and announces a site-specific pop-up event on Salisbury Crags, featuring the work of 50 leading international playwrights, and entitled “50 Ways To Jump Of A Cliff”. Oddly, this strange spectacle becomes a huge commercial success despite being staged for free, as audience members stuff large amounts of money into donation buckets marked, “The Edinburgh International Festival, Keeping You Sane In Ridiculous Times.”


The Citizens’ moves out of its home in the Gorbals to make way for a two-year rebuilding project, and launches Dominic Hill’s first production at the Tramway – Edwin Morgan’s 1990s version of Cyrano De Bergerac – in conjunction with a travel company offering cheap holidays in Gascony. Culture minister Fiona Hyslop finally intervenes to say that enough is enough, persuades the Scottish Government to increase arts funding by 50 per cent, and gives Creative Scotland a sharp talking-to about making its funding decisions on schedule in future.


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The National Theatre of Scotland launches its Futureproof Festival, featuring ten large-scale shows made by leading international experimental theatre companies, by and with young people at ten locations across Scotland. The result is a such an explosively entertaining indictment of the very concept of “exploitation” – of people, of the planet, and of public assets in general – that no-one in Scottish theatre ever dares to mention the word again. Except at Pitlochry, of course, where exploitation of the theatre’s splendid location on the banks of the Tummel continues apace, and brings in loads of money.


Panto rehearsals. Frost and wind.


As the panto season gets under way, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon makes a state visit to Beauty And The Beast at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, and is relieved to note that the Ugly Sisters are not called Nicola and Ruth, as they were in last year’s Cinderella. At the pre-show drinks reception, Festival City Theatres boss Duncan Hendry almost explains how the King’s team are hoping to exploit its fine city centre location to transform it into a throbbing hub of Edinburgh life, with gorgeous cafes and bars, and a glass rooftop function room. In the light of the year’s events, though, he thinks of another word for “exploit,” leaving many of those present to wonder whether changing the language of management in the arts is a pointless cosmetic exercise – or whether, just sometimes, it might represent a genuine fresh start, at the dawn of another new year. ■

All shows will take place at the times and places mentioned here, except the fantasy Edinburgh International Festival show on Salisbury Crags, which is a work of fiction