JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE SILVER DARLINGS at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, and OLD GIRLS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 3.9.09
The Silver Darlings 4 stars ****
Old Girls 2 stars **
IN ONE SENSE, Neil Gunn’s Silver Darlings looks like a predictable choice for Aberdeen Performing Arts, as a follow-up to last year’s successful version of Lewis Grassic Gibbons’s Sunset Song. Gibbons’s work deals with farming and the farming community, Gunn’s with the fishing industry that traditionally formed the other great mainstay of the economy in the north and east of Scotland; and the style of Kenny Ireland’s large-scale touring production – created as part of Aberdeen’s ambitious new theatre initiative, now in its second year, and built around a fine new stage adaptation of the novel by Peter Arnott – is similar to the one he adopted in Sunset Song, involving atmospheric period costume and visuals, and plenty of strong choral ensemble work from his company of eleven actors.
What lifts this show to a new level of achievement, though, is the company’s fierce engagement with the theme of Gunn’s 1941 novel, which involves a startlingly modern – even post-modern – concern with masculinity, and the construction of it in an intense relationship between a boy and his single mother. Set in Caithness and Sutherland at the end of the 19th century, during a rare and lucrative boom in the herring industry, The Silver Darlings tells the story of the coming-of-age of a boy called Finn, whose mother Catrine is effectively widowed even before his birth, when her young husband is apparently kidnapped by a British navy press-gang.
Forced to remain single because of the uncertainty over her husband’s fate, Catrine raises Finn with the help of her old aunt Kirsty, and her devoted friend Roddy, the master of a fishing boat. But when the boy reaches manhood, and wants to test his strength against the sea that offers a rich living but has taken so many lives, he and his mother become locked in a bitter, passionate conflict.
Some aspects of Kenny Ireland’s production have a slightly old-fashioned, 1980’s-folkloric look; and the use of Matthew Scott’s hefty recorded score can be a shade filmic and heavy-handed. But at the core of the show, there are two richly enjoyable performances from a wonderful Meg Fraser as Catrine – strong, beautiful, damaged, hardened by grief, and finally transfigured by happiness – and from Finn Den Hertog, who might have been born to play the role of Finn.
And what emerges, in the end, is a tremendously successful piece of popular theatre, not subtle, but pacey, professional and full of passion. Gunn’s novel is a great portrayal of a Gaelic-speaking community enjoying a rare moment of prosperity and confidence, in its long fading struggle for survival against the encroachment of the English language, and of lowland Scots who are, if anything, even more bigoted and contemptous. But it is also, at its core, a remarkable novel about the nature of the relationship between mothers and sons, one of the great bonds that shapes all human cultures; and this production gives it new life, for a new generation of Scottish audiences.
The transition from boyhood to manhood is one of the great themes of world literature, a traditional “quest” story that lends itself to happy endings, as the hero finds his destiny, claims his bride, and marches on into the future. There’s no such satisfying template, though, for narratives about the transition from active adulthood into old age; and although there is now a large and growing market – from theatre to television comedy series – for drama about people in the twilight of their years, the genre seems to struggle to move beyond the obvious trick of setting up a few stereotypes, and then making old folks defy them by enjoying rock music, or taking an interest in sex.
I wish I could say that Zoe Strachan’s Old Girls, the first play in the new autumn season of Play, Pie and Pint drama at Oran Mor, was successful in moving on from this sadly predictable pattern of drama about the elderly; but alas, it only succeeds in reproducing it, over and over again. Mabel and Sadie – check those names – are two friends in their 80’s facing the usual hazards of declining health, advancing dementia, and greedy middle-aged offpsring threatening to sell Mabel’s home from under her, and pack her off to the old folks’ home. Mabel’s grandson Stephen, meanwhile, is a teenage victim of the same selfish fortysomething generation, about to have his whole life and education disrupted as his parents make a lucrative career move to London.
In an effort to avoid the obvious happy ending – Stephen comes to live with granny – Strachan ties herself in ever more implausible knots, as Mabel and Sadie find an old World War II gun in the attic, and start to plan a raid on the local post office which will raise enough money to buy off Mabel’s grasping son. For the last 20 minutes of what begins to seem like an interminable hour, the play runs in desperate circles, as everyone haggles over the obvious absurdity of this plan, without actually generating an alternative. Janet Michael and Deirdre Murray turn in a pair of enjoyable performances as Sadie and Mabel, making the best of the material they’re given. But if old age really amounts to a choice between cosy, patronised tedium and complete insanity, I think I’d rather not go there; such a pity, come to think of it, that the only alternative is death.
The Silver Darlings at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, until 5 September; King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 8-12 September; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 15-19 September; Dundee Rep 22-26 September; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 6-10 October; Wick Assembly Rooms 15-17 October; and Perth Theatre, 20-31 October. Old Girls at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 5 September.