Theatre reviews: Maim | Within Sight | Allan Stewart’s Big, Big Variety Show

The idea of indigenous peoples as leaders and innovators, in the battle against climate change, has been gaining traction across the planet for many years; and now, Scotland’s Gaelic theatre company Theatre Gu Leor, and the Gaelic-language electronic band WHYTE, come together to add a powerful Scottish voice to the conversation about what we lose in terms of knowledge and self-knowledge, when an ancient language and culture disappears from the earth, and how that loss robs us of a vital connection with the land itself.

Maim explores marginalised groups and the loss of connection
Maim explores marginalised groups and the loss of connection

Maim, Tron Theatre, Glasgow ****

Within Sight, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ***

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Allan Stewart’s Big, Big Variety Show, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ***

Ellen Renton rails against her obstacle course of a life

Written by Alasdair Whyte with the company, and featuring a new score by Ross Whyte built around two songs from WHYTE’s recent album Tairm, Maim - the word means panic or consternation - emerges as an extraordinary 75-minute movement-meditation on these themes, particularly as they play out on Alasdair Whyte’s native island of Mull. Muireann Kelly’s production foregrounds both WHYTE’s music, and Jessica Kennedy’s extraordinary choreography for Alasdair Whyte and co-performers Elspeth Turner and Evie Waddell, built around images of drowning and melting, struggle for survival and mutual support, that are in turn reflected in Lewis den Hertog’s powerful visual images and film.

There’s storytelling too, and light-touch use of Gaelic, English and British Sign Language, with plenty of subtitles. The overwhelming power of the show, though, lies in its unforgettable combination of song, imagery and movement; delivered by four fine performers, including Ross Whyte who plays live throughout, and driven by a passionate pride in Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking culture that sees it not only as a treasure to be preserved, but as a vital guide towards a new and different possible future.

If speakers of minority languages are a marginalised group from whom society has much to learn, then so are people with disabilities; and Ellen Renton’s powerful solo show Within Sight offers a searing and subtle one-hour insight into the life of a young woman with albinism, and the very poor eyesight associated with it. Partly because her condition is little understood by most people, Renton’s life represents a constant obstacle-course of misunderstandings, physical difficulties, and patronising comments. Yet still she runs, every day, through the streets and parks around her home; and the trigger for the powerful meditative text of the show is her intense disappointment at failing to be selected for the UK paralympic team.

What emerges is an angry, sometimes beautiful, and highly thought-provoking performance, in which Renton’s slender running figure, on stage, is seen against the backdrop of her daily running route, conjured up in Kiana Kalantar-Hormozi’s powerful video images. In the end, the show seems more like an illustrated poetry performance than solo drama; but its intensity is unforgettable, as is its insight into the myriad tiny ways in which people with disabilities can be driven to despair by the indifference, self-absorption, and sheer lack of empathy of the society in which they live.

Pic Lisa Ferguson 04/02/2020 Allan Stewart turns 70 - and celebrates 60 years in showbiz

If you fancy a fast trip back to a much earlier age of British entertainment, though, then this week the King’s in Edinburgh is the place for you. Edinburgh’s great panto star Allan Stewart is celebrating his 60th anniversary in show business; and this year’s Big, Big Variety Show serves up the usual helping of thoroughly dodgy jokes (this time from Liverpool comedian Mick Miller), along with a 1950s-style send-up of a Gaelic singing-group that would doubtless drive the producers of Maim to despair.

If the style and values are old-fashioned, though, Allan Stewart and his panto co-stars, Andy Gray and Grant Stott, are never short of talent; neither is their guest singer Mari Wilson, or the eight-piece Andy Pickering Orchestra, who accompany the show. Gray, in particular, receives a roaring welcome from the audience after his absence through illness last year, and rewards it with a stunning display of perfect comic timing and inimitable, subtly shifting facial expressions. Stewart, who began his career aged 10, sings his heart out, and receives a final standing ovation, after a short audio-visual journey through his career; and the whole event provides a brief oasis of old-fashioned jollity, in a world where few things seem either simple or certain, any more.

Maim is at Tron Theatre, Glasgow tonight, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 17-18 March, and on tour until 28 March. Within Sight is at Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from 19-21 March, and on tour May-June. Allan Stewart’s Big, Big Variety Show at the King’s, Edinburgh, final performances today.

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