JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BIG PICNIC at the Pearce Institute, Govan, for The Scotsman 9.9.11
3 stars ***
REID KERR College, Langside College, Telford, Coatbridge, and the University of the West of Scotland: recession or no recession, Scotland’s colleges keep churning out students with a burning interest in theatre, and a determination to build professional careers for themselves.
To judge by their latest production at the Pearce Institute in Govan, though, the new Glasgow company known as Shoogalie Road must be one of the most ambitious post-graduate groups in Scotland; in that they’ve chosen, with the consent, support and first-night presence of the playwright himself, to tackle Bill Bryden’s huge 1994 epic The Big Picnic. The play tells the story of a group of nine working-class Govan men who join Glasgow’s famous Highland Light Infantry at the outset of the First World War, and are plunged into the hell of the trenches. It also keeps an eye on the story of their wives and womenfolk, trying to keep the home fires burning back in Glasgow; and it remains a well-researched and moving, if slightly predictable, slice of Glasgow working-class history, which resonates powerfully in the local setting of the Pearce, a focal point of the Govan community since 1906.
Directed by Jemima Sinclair and by Liam Lambie – who also adapted the text – this young production of Bryden’s play is never flawless; all of the actors have a tendency to lose control of their voices in moments of high emotion, and there is too much aimless shouting. At its best, though, it combines some impressive acting with a fine soundscape, and an outstanding grasp of how to use a large cast – there are 17 on stage – to create memorable stage pictures; and although there are some theatrical events in Scotland this week which achieve a higher professional polish, there are few driven by such an urgency to tell a tale which should never be forgotten, and by such a powerful emerging sense of theatrical poetry, in telling it.