JOYCE MCMILLAN on PLAY 200 at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF HUGH HUGHES: 360 at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts, 7.10.10
Play 200 4 stars ****
The Wonderful World Of Hugh Hughes: 360 3 stars ***
STORM-CLOUDS loom, in the form of possible spending cuts that could devastate Scotland’s home-grown theatre industry. This week, though, it’s time to celebrate one of the most magical theatre initiatives of the last decade; one that survives, significantly, with very little public subsidy, and that will probably still be there long after the financial axe-men have done their worst.
I’m talking, of course, about the great Play, Pie and Pint phenomenon, the lunchtime theatre launched at Oran Mor in Glasgow six years ago, and produced from the start by that great survivor of Scottish theatre, the former 7:84 and Wildcat writer/director David MacLennan. Having fought an exhausting battle against the Scottish Arts Council in the 1990’s, when Wildcat finally lost its funding, MacLennan was determined from the start that his new initiative – which involves staging a new 50-minute play each week, throughout the spring and autumn seasons – would not waste energy on haggling with funding bodies. It survives on ticket sales, plus modest commercial sponsorship, and some low-level backing from the Scottish Playwrights’ Studio and co-producing companies; it is also heavily subsidised by the artists involved, who often work for next to nothing.
Yet within those limits, the success of MacLennan’s formula has been stunning. This week, Play, Pie and Pint celebrates its 200th show in six years, with a pick-and-mix programme of no fewer than 32 two-minute plays, commissioned from writers that range from superstars like Liz Lochhead and Gregory Burke to relative newcomers, including Alan Bissett and Zoe Strachan. And the result is a 75-minute show bursting with energy, ideas, humour and talent; and illuminated by a programme note which reminds us not only that 100,000 pies have been consumed at Oran Mor during the past six years, but that this month alone, Play, Pie and Pint shows can be seen on tour in eight other theatres across Britain and Ireland.
The secret of success of the Play 200 multiple-bill lies not only in the talent of those who have contributed, but in the simple, powerful theme they have been asked to consider, Glasgow Now And Then. In a trice, this draws out reflections on changing street language from Peter McDougall, short plays about inward migration from writers like Mike Gonzalez and David Ireland, and an exquisite reflection on Glasgow’s involvement in the slave trade, from David MacLennan himself. There are episodes from Glasgow history, brought to life by Iain Robertson and Catherine Lucy Czerkawska; and there’s a brilliant, wry look at sectarianism by Louise Welsh.
The standard of the writing is always decent, often sparkling; the team of 30 fine actors perform as if they have been invited to the best creative party of the year, and are determined to do it justice. And in Tuesday’s programme, I didn’t even see the plays by such luminaries as Liz Lochhead and D.C. Jackson; so if you want the full experience of this joyous celebration of Scottish theatre at its most vibrant and fleet-footed, book now to be at a packed Oran Mor on Saturday, when all 32 plays will be performed, in a mammoth party that will last for about two hours on stage, and will no doubt continue into the night.
Over at the Traverse, meanwhile, there’s a more subdued welcome for another week-long celebration, devoted to the work of the much-admired Fringe theatre artist Shon Dale-Jones, and his theatrical alter ego, Hugh Hughes. The character of Hugh Hughes is a fine creation, a hugely enthusiastic if slightly naive theatre artist from Anglesey who uses a wide range of means – from music and puppetry to roughly-sketched visual images and film – in the attempt to involve the audience in his troubled but hopeful creative life. And now a new compendium of all his work – under the title The Wonderfui World Of Hugh Hughes – visits Edinburgh, on its way from the London to the Dublin International Theatre Festival.
So this week at the Traverse, there’s a chance to catch up with Hughes’s early 2006 monologue Floating, in which Anglesey floats off into the Atlantic, and his 2007 hit The Story Of A Rabbit, which deals with the death of his father; on Friday, there will also be a showing of his new film Stories From An Invisible Town, and a question-and-answer session in the Traverse bar. And the season began, earlier this week, with a performance of Hughes’s recent monologue 360, a 90-minute show, delivered in bare-stage, stand-up comedy style, about a moment when Hughes felt he had to look round the 360-degree horizon of his life, and change his perspective. The underlying theme is friendship, featuring a story about Hughes’s relationship with his childhood friend Gareth, and a supertext about his chatty new “friendship” with the audience, which involves so much meta-theatrical game-playing that it takes him 25 minutes even to start telling his story.
Sometimes, Dale-Jones’s whimsical style, and his toying with the audience, are irritating enough to set the teeth on edge. There’s no denying, though, that he is a deep thinker about the relationship between theatre and play, asking the audience to drop their adult masks, and join in the heady business of imagining new worlds, and a more liberated way of seeing. His talent is formidable, and his perspective – Welsh, surreal, a bit multi-media – so challenging to most of the norms of British theatre culture that it tends to have a powerful appeal to younger audiences who are not turned on by conventional theatre; an appeal that will be thoroughly tested at the Traverse this week, as the theatre tries to recreate some of the buzz that surrounds Hughes’s work on the Festival Fringe, in the middle of an Edinburgh October.
Play 200 at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and The Wonderful World Of Hugh Hughes at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, both until Saturday, 9 October.