Joyce McMillan online…

All my writing on theatre and general social/political issues is available online here.

Everything on the site appears in date order, below, beginning with the most recent column or review.  Most of these pieces are commissioned by, and first appear in, The Scotsman. Ultimate ownership of copyright remains with me, and is asserted here.

If you want to search the site for something specific, type your key word(s) into the space on the right, and press return.

To come back to this main page at any time, just click on “joyce mcmillan – online” at the very top of the page. Enjoy!

© Joyce McMillan 2011

Doris, Dolly, And The Popular Theatre Of Morag Fullarton



IT’S ALMOST ten o’clock on a Sunday night at Oran Mor in Byres Road; but there’s no sign that anyone in the downstairs nightclub venue wants to stop partying.  During the day, from Monday to Saturday, this is the space that plays host to Oran Mor’s Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime theatre.  Sometimes, though you can also catch an evening show here; and tonight, the four women taking a well-earned bow – while the audience joins in a standing ovation – are Gail Watson, Frances Thorburn, Clare Waugh, and musical director Hilary Brooks, the cast of Doris & Dolly And A Wee Bit More, a witty and sometimes thought-provoking miniature tribute show that has just taken us on a whistle-stop singalong tour of defining moments in the lives of five great female performers – Doris Day, Dolly Parton, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, and a hilariously rude Julie Andrews.

As the cast take their bows, though, there’s no sign anywhere of the woman behind the show, the writer and director Morag Fullarton; she’s somewhere at the back, revelling in the audience response, staying out of the limelight.  Yet there’s plenty to be learned about the story of popular theatre in Scotland, by loooking at Morag Fullarton’s extraordinary forty-year career, which began at the Royal Scottish Academy Of Music And Drama in the mid-1970’s.   From 1978 to 1990, Fullarton was artistic director of Borderline Theatre Company, based in Ayr, working alongside the other great radical theatre-makers of the day, including John McGrath and David MacLennan, to create popular touring theatre that would speak to ordinary people all over Scotland, and employing actors and writers like Alex Norton, Bill Paterson, Billy Connolly, and a uoung Alan Cumming.

After Borderline, Fullarton saw what she calls “the writing on the wall” for arts council funding of popular touring theatre, and moved into television, working as a director on series like That’s Life, Cardiac Arrest and The Grand; she still has a thriving television career today.  And in the last few years, the existence of A Play, A Pie And A Pint has drawn her back into theatre for the first time in almost 20 years.  She directed Play, Pie, Pint’s smash-hit short stage version of Casablanca; and before Doris & Dolly, Oran Mor’s owner-impresario Colin Beattie had already conjured up a terrific evening hit for the venue by asking Fullarton to write and direct her hugely successful 2010 tribute show, A Bottle Of Wine And Patsy Cline.

So why don’t we see Fullarton directing shows on Scotland’s main stages, a generation on from her early years at Borderline?  Perhaps we soon will; the National Theatre of Scotland’s director Laurie Sansom was to be seen in the Oran Mor crowd last Sunday night, singing along to Somewhere Over The Rainbow with the best of us.

The truth is, though, that Fullarton represents a tradition of practical, unpretentious, often female-inflected popular theatre that has been slightly out of fashion, these last 20 years, and that also dares, these days, to dabble in the realms of the pastiche and the small-scale tribute show, sometimes viewed with scorn by serious students of theatre.  “To me, the two art-forms – stage and television – are completely different, “ says Fullarton. “And for me, theatre has always been about making that vital, direct connection with the audience; that’s our Scottish tradition of performance, after all, and without it nothing happens.

“And yes, today that often means that you are working with the music and the movies everyone loves, that make up our common culture – I’m just working now on a mini-version of Sunset Boulevard, for Juliet Cadzow.  But I love those films and songs so much that that never seems like a problem; and to see how the audience love them too, and join in with the performance, and learn a bit, too, along the way – well, that makes me very, very happy.”

Doris, Dolly And A Little Bit More will be at Assembly on the Edinburgh Fringe, 2015.


Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon


JOYCE MCMILLAN on FLOWER, BIRD, WIND, MOON at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 28.2.15.

3 stars ***

IT’S A STRANGE and lovely thing, this latest short play by theatre and music man Paddy Cunneen; a little too self-consciously sweet to amount to great drama, but strikingly attractive and thought-provoking, all the same.  The hero – known simply as Our Man –  is an middle-aged Scottish everyman whose world has fallen apart following his wife’s death from cancer;  so he takes leave of absence from his teaching job and two grown-up kids, and goes to Japan, to fulfil a lifelong ambition to study Noh theatre.

His time in Japan is a combination of wry self-deprecating tale of an innocent abroad, and wish- fulfilment fantasy involving an affair with a glamorous Japanese lady who carries her own terrible burden of grief.  If the narrative arc is predictable, though, Billy Mack and Tomoko Komura turn in a delightful pair of performances.  And in the sequences where Our Man grapples with the essence of Noh theatre  – while the wonderful Komura plays all three of his instructors or “sensei”, and some traditional masked Noh characters – this gentle play achieves something more; a deep sense of how this ancient art, and others like it, cannot take away the pain of living, but somehow enable us to share it, to make something of it, to live on, and to thrive.

Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today.


12 Angry Men, The Effect


JOYCE MCMILLAN on TWELVE ANGRY MEN at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and THE EFFECT at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 28.2.15.

Twelve Angry Men   4 stars ****
The Effect   3 stars ***

THE ONLY RULE about good theatre is that there are no rules.  In general, the greatest shows in 21st century theatre seem to be the ones that reach out the audience, and leave them in no  doubt that this is a piece of live entertainment.  Yet sometimes, a play appears that sits comfortably behind the line that divides stage from audience, and still manges to deliver a superb piece of live art, gripping, compelling and irresistible.

Reginald Rose’s classic mid-20th-centuyry American drama Twelve Angry Men – first written as a 1954  television play, before it became the famous 1957 film starring Henry Fonda – is a prime example of one of those plays: not theatrically flashy, but built round the relentlessly powerful story of a lone juror in a New York murder case, who, faced with an 11-1 majority for a guilty verdict against the young black man accused of the crime, gradually exposes the doubtful motives behind this rush to convict, and the underlying weakness of the evidence. And in this Bill Kenwright touring production, directed by Christopher Haydon, there’s finally no resisting the grubby municipal grandeur of Michael Pavelka’s jury-room set, with an invisibly slow revolve gradually bringing all 12 faces into view; nor the terrific performances delivered by a mighty team of actors, led by a brilliant, thoughtful Tom Conti as the liberal dissenter, Juror No. 8, and Denis Lill as the terrifying Juror No. 10, whose blatant racism, once flushed into the open, has the case for a guilty verdict crumbling before our eyes.

Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, by contrast, is a recent British drama  that struggles a little harder to make theatre out of a story that is part academic debate, part self-absorbed exploration of the meaning of human identity.  Connie and Tristan are both twentysomethings taking part – for money – in a six-week medical drugs trial, supervised by Lorna, the in-house doctor, and her arrogant boss Toby.

The drug being tested, though – for use against depressive illness – is a form of dopamine, source of many feel-good emotions including the feeling of being in love; and as Connie and Tristan begin a whirlwind affair, neither knows whether their feelings are genuine, or just a product of chemical interference with their brains.

The problem with the play is that there’s something about this premise that actually undermines the drama; it’s hard to care about characters whose pretty ordinary-looking sexual motives may not even be real, and harder still to enjoy the play’ sslightly flat-footed debates around chemicals and the brain.

In this new touring production by Firebrand of Hawick, though, Richard Baron’s company give this full-length  play an impressive run for its money. Scarlett Mack and Pauline Knowles turn in outstanding performances as Connie and Lorna; Ken Harrison’s clinical laboratory set, with terrific sound and light, is a model of good-looking small-scale design.  And in the end, the play shows a touching sense that love, after all, may be the answer; if only we can find it, and believe that it’s real.

Twelve Angry Men at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until tonight, and at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 22-27 June; The Effect at Summerhall, Edinburgh, 11-14 March, and on tour.



An Avalanche Of Unpopular Planning Decisions In Scotland Signals Danger For Democracy, As Local Government Loses The Power To Respond To Public Opinion – Column 27.2.15.


JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.2.15.

ANOTHER WEEK, another avalanche of controversial planning decisions from Scotland’s major local authorities.  This week, it’s the Marischal Square development in Aberdeen, a massive, unlovely block of hotel, office and retail space that is set to obstruct the view of the city’s beautiful Marischal College from the surrounding streets.   It’s the “people’s pedal-bin” proposal to replace the much-loved Concert Hall steps at the top of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street with a new glass cylinder containing an Imax cinema, and yet more retail space.

And then there is Edinburgh, and the current almighty row over the future of the old Royal High School on Calton Hill, probably the city’s most prominent building apart from the Castle.  There are still people in vigorous middle age who went to school at the Royal High back in the 1960’s, in the days when boys making their final farewells at the end of Sixth Year were allowed to pass out through the great doors of the school hall, and to stand under that mighty classical pediment, looking out over their city; then for 30 years after the school moved out in 1968, the building was regarded as the obvious home for any future Scottish Parliament or Assembly, should it come to pass.

Following Donald Dewar’s historic decision to site the new parliament at Holyrood, though, the building was left in limbo.  And now, it seems cash-strapped Edinburgh City Council has thrown in the towel, and made a near-irrevocable decision to sign this great Edinburgh landmark over for development as a “6-star” international hotel – a bolt-hole for plutocrats and oligarchs, in a building once buiit to celebrate the democratic intellect.  In Edinburgh, the looming Royal High decision comes hot on the heels of the long-running civic farce and tragedy that was the tram project, the breathtakingly insensitive Caltongate project which has already almost cost the city its World Heritage Site status, a significant micro-row over the loss of the vital Picture House music venue in Lothian Road, and widespread dismay over the destruction of B-listed buildings in St. Andrews’ Square, for further bland retail and office development.

And all this, in Scotland, comes against a backdrop of mounting concern about what is happening in London, where once-vibrant local areas are now being bought up and redeveloped – often for sale to overseas property-holders who may not even live there – at a rate that leaves local communities almost helpless to resist.  Clearly, some balance has now decisively tipped, in the long-term struggle for public urban space between institutions that represent the people, and private capital interested mainly in property as investment.  Local authorities now often feel they have no option but to sign away beloved local areas and landmarks, regardless of public opinion and feeling; and given repeated decisions of this kind, it’s hardly surprising, this week, to find messages on the social networks suggesting that Edinburgh City Council should simply be abolished, and the City Chambers flogged off for development, like everything else.

What we’re witnessing, in other words, is exactly the kind of slow death of local democracy that suits big corporate interests best, as weakened local authorities – with almost no power to raise their own income, and operating within ever-tighter  legal constraints – are repeatedly forced to ignore the views of the people they supposedly represent, and therefore become increasingly unpopular.  Yet the threat to democracy reflected in the plight of our  local authorities is not confined to this level of government, and cannot be confronted by abolishing or further weakening it.  If the current Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the European Union and the USA is concluded, for example, then national governments will also soon find themselves enmeshed in the same kinds of networks of legal commercial requirements that currently hobble local government decision-making; that is, they will find themselves ever more often obliged to ignore the views of their people, in favour of compliance with legal requirements heavily moulded by corporate lobbying.

And if we want to fight back against this trend, and to start reasserting the powert of democratic decision-making at every level, then a robust local democracy is where we have to start.  As policies go, it’s counter-intuitive, and likely – at least initially – to be massively unpopular.  But as Lesley Riddoch points out in her great book Blossom, if we look at international examples, it’s perfectly clear that what Scotland needs now is not less local government, but much, much more.  We currently have half as many local councillors per head as in England, one-twentieth as many as in Norway, and by far the lowest number per head in western Europe; we need to get rid of our 32 unwieldy and increasingly ineffectual local authorities, restore genuine local democracy to mid-sized towns like Kirkcaldy, Fort William, and St. Andrews, and institute whole new statutory layers of full-blooded community representation to revitalise our city councils, and reconnect them with the people they represent.

And before you dismiss this suggestion as absurd and unworkable, think again.  Our skimpy, top-down structure of local government has already proved too weak to resist power-grabs by both corporate interests and central government.  As we have seen this week, our national institutions at UK level also grow more brittle and corruptible, as they grab power from below, rather than empowering the grass roots; the same fate will also soon engulf the Scottish Government, unless it learns a rapid lesson in the dangers of over-centralisation.  To care about democracy is to want more of it, not less; and to be prepared to invest in it, generation after generation.

So for a moment, press the pause-button on that routine pub chat about how politicians and councillors are the problem, not the solution.  Look at the statistics, and the audits of real democratic accountability in countries across Europe.  And then consider the possibility that our representatives are as they are not because they are too many, but because they are too few; and are therefore fighting a losing battle against the far greater power of corporate lobbying and influence, which increasingly seems able to shape our governance to its own ends, and to ensure that the people’s voices go largely unheard, in the vast onward march of commercial development.


The Caucasian Chalk Circle


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 23.2.15.

5 stars *****

THEATRE.  IT’S ROUGH, it’s often pretentious, and it’s always a more risky bet than any form of screen entertainment.  There are moments, though, when a play and a company come together in such an explosion of energy and passion that everyone who experiences it learns all over again, with every cell of their bodies, why people make live theatre, and always will.  The new Royal Lyceum version of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle – written in 1944, now revived in a brilliant production by artistic director Mark Thomson – marks one of those moments; and everyone with a heartbeat should strive to see it, or be poorer for missing it.

The timeliness of the story is what seizes the attention first.  The play famously begins with a village debate about land ownership, which is then put on pause while the local people perform a play based on a traditional story about justice – its usual failures, and one magic moment when it works. There’s plenty of onstage  music, too, reminding us of the direct line of descent from Brecht’s work, through the touring Theatre Workshop of Ewan McColl and Joan Littlewood, to our own 7:84 and Wildcat companies.  As the village play begins, the musician and choreographer Sarah Swire (Belle & Sebastian, God Help The Girl) arrives in glamorous shades, and becomes the play’s chorus, leading the cast in Claire McKenzie’s bold, rock-based score with ever-increasing conviction and clarity.

And then the story begins, as the palace kitchen-girl Grusha, a 21st century refugee in bobble-hat and back-pack, flees the revolution that has killed her boss, but cannot resist taking with her the governor’s baby son, left behind in the chaos.  “Terrible is the seductive temptation to do good!” glows the great neon sign on stage, in the most famous of all Brecht quotes; but Amy Manson’s breathtakingly wonderful Grusha, and the little, growing puppet-baby she takes with her, already have our hearts in the palms of their hands, as they travel on through danger and deprivation, and painful compromise with the need to survive, to the decisive moment when they reach the court of the unconventional peasant judge, Azdak.

Mark Thomson’s 13-strong ensemble – including a superb  Christopher Fairbank as Azdak – perform like a company possessed by the briliance and significance of their story; they are  funny, moving, compelling, unstoppable, right to the final fade to darkness.  “Why did they kill all the governors, judges, landowners, bankers?” roars Azdak. “Why do you think?  Too much injustice, too much war.”  Some things, in other words, never change; and neither do the Grushas of this world, travelling, struggling, finding a space for the next generation to thrive, in spite of everything.

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 14 March.




JOYCE MCMILLAN on NETTING at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 21.2.15.

3 stars ***

SET RESOLUTELY  in the living-room of a small house somewhere in north-east Scotland, Morna Young’s new Play, Pie And Pint drama is an intriguing mixture of the bold, the promising, and the absolutely dire.   Its strength lies in the primal, elemental quality of the situation it describes; after the loss of a fishing boat at sea, three bereaved women wait, hoping at least that the sea will give them back a body, so that they can hold a funeral.

Kitty is the matriarch, stolidly knitting her way through the intolerable loss of her husband and two sons, clinging to her one little grandson as a last remnant of family.  Alison, the boy’s mother, is slumped in grief, barely getting out of bed.  And Sylvia is the other daughter-in-law, brisk, strong, childless, and increasingly resentful of Alison’s parasitic dependence on Kitty.

When a body is found, though, the emotional balance begins to shift, amid scenes of mounting melodrama.  The landscape of primal family conflict and jealousy is both intense and frighteningly recognisable, the strong Doric voices unforgettable.  Yet somehow, both the text and the performances struggle to find a tone that matches the scale of the emotions.  Where the momentum should be unbearable, the pace is often sluggish; and what should be an epic story of female passions often ends up looking more like a badly-written episode of Eastenders, with Carol Ann Crawford as Kitty, Joyce Falconer as Sylvia, and Sarah McCardie as Alison, all struggling to find the place between surface naturalism and deep truth where drama of this intensity survives, and thrives.