JOYCE MCMILLAN on PARA HANDY – A VOYAGE ROUND THE STORIES OF NEIL MUNRO at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, SINGING FAR INTO THE NIGHT at Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, and WATCHING THE DETECTIVE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 29.9.11
Para Handy 4 stars ****
Singing Far Into The Night 3 stars ***
Watching The Detective 4 stars ****
LIGHTNESS, JOLLITY, pure comedic fun: it tends to be an underrated artistic quality, particularly in the best of times. When economic and political storm-clouds gather, though, stories like Neil Munro’s legendary Para Handy Tales – first published in Glasgow in 1905 – become increasingly irresistible. Like some P.G. Wodehouse of the western isles, Munro creates a poised and impervious world of light-touch humour and instantly recognisable human natureaboard the little west coast puffer crewed by philosopher-captain Para Handy and his three sidekicks, Dougie the mate, Macphail the engineer, and Sunny Jim the cabin boy; and it’s not for nothing that the boat is called The Vital Spark, as it sails forward like a little capsule of defiant human banter and storytelling, into the troubled waters of the 20th century.
And now, here comes veteran Scottish actor, writer, and director John Bett, with a big, generous touring stage version of the Para Handy Tales presented jointly by Eden Court and Open Book, and set to gladden hearts all over Scotland this autumn. Tracing its roots back to the original 7:84 Highland touring companies of the 1970’s, in which Bett played a key part, the show is dedicated to the former 7:84 fiddler and van-driver Allan Ross, who died this month, and reflects that open, empowering, ceilidh-like aesthetic in every detail of its staging. Annette Gillies’s set is a large affair, pleasantly at home on the big stage at Eden Court, where it opened last week; after a brief joke about 21st century waste disposal, it vaguely evokes the deck, cabin and bridge of the puffer, while allowing plenty of space for scenes on shore, notably Para Handy’s glacially slow wooing of the comely baker’s widow, Mary Crawford.
To the rear, there are big screens, showing archive footage of puffers and paddle steamers plying the Firth of Clyde and the west coast; and to one side, there is a band captained by composer and music director Robert Pettigrew, leading the cast through a fine mix of traditional songs and shanties – in which the audience are freely invited to join – and some thoughtful new ballad reflections on the changing world through which Para and his men moved with such insouciance.
The greatest richness of this show, though, lies in its acting company, who bring such a wealth of experience to the stage that it’s a joy to watch them, as they sing, act, and work their audience with limitless skill and charm. Jimmy Chisholm’s Para Handy, George Drennan’s Dougie, Peter Kelly’s Macphail and Sandy Nelson’s Sunny Jim are all fine character sketches; Annie Grace is magnificent as whole range of women, including the adorable widow Crawford. And although this is a show that’s easy to dismiss as lightweight, nostalgic fun, in fact it has a grace, a substance, and a true lightness of being that is far harder to achieve than it looks; and has something to do with the pure essence of art, lifting, shaping and energising the dull stuff of human experience, even in the toughest of times.
Mull Theatre’s current touring show Singing All Through The Night, by contrast, is a self-consciously serious attempt to tackle some of the biggest political themes of the 20th century. Written by Inverness-based novelist and dramatist Hamish MacDonald, the play is an epic two-act drama about two Glasgow brothers, Connal and Finlay MacNab. The story opens in 1930, when Finlay is a journalist and left-wing activist in Glasgow, and Connal a sailor serving in the British navy. In an all-too-familiar climate of government cuts and austerity, Finlay becomes a rising star of world communism, while Connal becomes involved in the 1931 Invergordon Mutiny against pay cuts in the British forces, with tragic personal consequences.
To say that MacDonald’s play is ambitious is to understate the case: at times, it visibly cracks under the weight of history and ideas it carries, as characters lecture one another tongue-twistingly about the politics of their situation. It’s inspiring, though, to see a new Scottish play with such a strong sense of political and historic perspective, and such a determination to do justice to forgotten aspects of history; and Alasdair McCrone’s four-strong cast – Harry Ward and Barrie Hunter as the brothers, Greg Powrie as various British establishment types, and Helen McAlpine as the woman both brothers love – bring terrific energy and understanding to a complex text, that still seems, in places, like a work in progress.
If Singing Far Into The Night is a play crammed to bursting with words and dialogue, Paddy Cunneen’s new Oran Mor lunchtime solo show, Watching The Detective, is a memorably spare and searching piece of work, full of long silences, and direct audience interaction. The speaker – brilliantly played by Stuart Bowman – is a detective of some sort, arriving at a crime scene. Early in the show, he criss-crosses the whole space with quantities of police incident tape, lacing us all into complicity with the murder that has apparently taken place; then, interrupted by brief, cryptic phone-calls, he begins a ruthless exploration of all the cliches and tropes of detective fiction and drama, including our strange facination with violent death, our fantasies of solution and resolution, and our complicity in various other kinds of brutality. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece of theatre so deliberately, disturbingly unresolved; but I’ve also rarely seen a fine actor so energised by a text that knows no boundaries, and digs so deeply into our shared culture of violence as thrill and spectacle, in the space of just 50 minutes.
Para Handy is at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen until Saturday, the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 4-8 October, and Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 13-15 October. Singing Far Into The Night is at Ardrishaig, Cove and Eastwood this weekend, and on tour until 28 October. Watching The Detective is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday.