JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE MILL LAVVIES at Dundee Rep and DEAD FAMOUS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 6.9.12
The Mill Lavvies 3 stars ***
Dead Famous 3 stars ***
THE WOMAN AT THE Dundee Rep box office is quietly-spoken, but insistent; she’s coming to see The Mill Lavvies tonight, but she’s not so sure about the other show in the theatre’s autumn double bill, set to open next week. “It’s about celebrating the women of Dundee!” says the box office assistant, enthusiastically. “Yes, but is it about old Dundee?” says the woman. “Yes, it’s about women who worked in the mills while their husbands stayed at home, and they form a singing group….” “Yes, but what kind of music is it?” says the woman. “Is it the old songs?”
There’s no doubt about what you need to do, in other words, if you want to fill your theatre, in this autumn of 2012, while at the same time reaching out to audiences who are not regular theatregoers; you need to get nostalgic, and to present people from working-class communities who are now middle-aged or elderly with persuasive, non-jarring images of their trampled and officially forgotten past. For those now in their forties and fifties, the vehicle is often the tribute musical, celebrating some great band of the 1980’s; but for those who are a little older, the sight and sound of the tenement flats and workplaces of the world we inhabited half a century ago involves not only music, but a wealth of physical detail and language, long bulldozed by the march of history.
And whatever else it does, Chris Rattray’s 1998 play The Mill Lavvies – premiered at Dundee Rep that year, and now revived as the first play in an autumn double-bill about working-class life in the city – fulfils to perfection the role of theatrical time-machine, transporting audiences back to an age (1963, by the sound of the Beatles songs in the air) when men were men, teddy boys were being displaced by Sixties swingers, and ordinary workers not yet 40 were still scarred by memories of military service in the Second World War.
The play is set in the men’s lavatories of a jute mill where women in their thousands work the looms, while a small male workforce carries out maintenance, and unloads the raw materials; and it invites comparison with John Byrne’s 1978 masterpiece The Slab Boys, so precisely does it mirror the same mood of tension between the older, wartime generation and teenagers who are sick of hearing about it, and the growing impact of popular culture and rock music on British society. Rattray creates a cast of six vivid characters, led by Archie, the slightly daft janitor who looks after the lavvies and brews the tea. And the show is lifted, and given a rich extra resonance, by a sequence of a dozen clever and affectionate Dundee songs by Michael Marra, mostly in the Buddy Holly style of the day, for which the cast transform themselves instantly, if a little limply, into a rock’n’roll or skiffle band.
In the end, the play makes far less of this raw material than it could. The language is funny and couthy, but lacks the dash of pure, surreal poetry that makes John Byrne’s vernacular Scots so memorable; all the characters except Archie are predictable, and the play struggles to create narrative tensions that will sustain it, even for a bare two hours. Yet on Alex Lowde’s clever, super-naturalistic set – a huge barn of a space featuring toilets, washbasins and a cloakroom area, plus a huge spinning skylight ventilator through which we sense the noise and thrash of the mill – none of that seems to matter much, to the audience who pack the theatre. The point is that the play shows and celebrates, in a shared space, a popular history about which no-one else seems to care much any more; and whether or not it features the “right” music, it seems likely that the second show in the series – a new Dundee version of Sharman Macdonald’s She Town, set in the 1930’s – will not fail to do the same.
There’s a strong fascination with popular culture and entertainment, too, in the first play of this autumn’s Play, Pie And Pint season at Oran Mor, which wades boldly into the world of Michael R. Cane, one of those showbiz clairvoyants who claim to put suffering audience members back in touch with their departed loved ones. Cane also communes, so he says, with long-gone celebrities like Noel Coward and Frank Sinatra, so that his show offers a tempting mix of amusing impressions and sheer emotional exploitation.
In Keith Temple’s brief half-hour drama, Charlie Ross plays Cane, presenting his solo show to an increasingly sceptical audience; in the end, after severe disruption by mysterious gremlins, the act is destroyed by the intervention of a genuine spirit voice, who knows more about Cane than he would ever wish to be revealed.
As an indictment of the hypocrisy and cynicism of the junk-spiritualist business, this final sequence of Temple’s play is not bad. Elsewhere, though, it seems surprisingly unsure how to use the live audience in the theatre as part of the event, or whether to use it at all; the script is short of narrative energy, and of really effective humour. And although Charlie Ross, as Cane, demonstrates a minor talent for impressions of the famous dead, he seems a shade uneasy with the pressures of solo performance; so that much of the show seems like a weak stand-up comedy set delivered by a nervous beginner, rather than a confident and successful clairvoyant show, gradually crumbling under the pressure of its own contradictions.
The Mill Lavvies at Dundee Rep until 29 September; Dead Famous at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, 8 September.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
John Buick of the Dundee Rep Ensemble is one of the unsung heroes of Scottish theatre, delivering quietly indispensable performances in play after play, from Arthur Miller’s All My Sons to the Proclaimers tribute show Sunshine On Leith. And this autumn, in the Rep’s Dundee double bill, he makes something special, poignant and memorable of the role of Archie, the slightly daft cleaner and tea-maker in The Mill Lavvies. Archie is elderly, confused, credulous, and vulnerable to bullying. Yet he’s also determined, full of joy, and strangely affectionate towards all the material objects around him, from the tea-urn to his beloved sweeping-brush, lost and found again in a tiny mini-drama that is perfectly realised, thanks to Buick’s beautifully detailed performance.