JOYCE MCMILLAN on ASTONISHING ARCHIE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and RING at the Tramway, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 22.11.12
Astonishing Archie 4 stars ****
Ring at Fuelfest 4 stars ****
WHEN DAVID MACLENNAN first launched his Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime theatre season at Oran Mor, back in 2004, there was a faint but present danger that the season would become a kind of theatrical eventide home for members of his own Scottish theatre generation, nostalgic, disgruntled, and – in some cases – no longer fashionable enough to get their work performed elsewhere. As it turned out, the inspired MacLennan avoided that pitfall so brilliantly that Play, Pie and Pint is now one of Scottish theatre’s main sponsors of new and emerging talent; this autumn’s 14-show season features work by no less than seven brand-new stage writers, almost all of them based in Scotland.
There’s no doubt, though, that the Oran Mor audience still has a huge appetite for the odd stroll down memory lane, a gentle Theatre Of The Third Age; and if you want to see a particularly humorous and classy specimen of the genre, then you should get along early to Oran Mor one day between now and Saturday – queues are starting to form as early as 11 am – and catch this new play by leading Scottish actor Bill Paterson, starring Paterson himself along with former Lyceum director Kenny Ireland, and the lovely Sharon Small, best known to television audiences for her role as the female sidekick in the Inspector Lynley series.
The scenario is that favourite one for elegiac drama, the long-dispersed family forced to come together following a not-unexpected bereavement. In this case, though, it’s not an aged uncle or parent who has died, but Archie Martin, a lifelong friend of brothers Ronnie and Allan Purgavey, both now pushing 70. Archie has no family, and his wife is suffering from Alzheimer’s; so it falls to the brothers – who normally only see one another at Christmas – to organise the funeral.
So far, so predictable; but at this point, the story suddenly flares up into a fierce argument about Archie’s musical preferences, sparked by the generational difference between Kenny Ireland’s elder brother Ronnie – who grew up to the sounds of Sinatra and the Rat Pack – and Paterson’s younger brother Allan, a rocker whose youth was shaped by devotion to Elvis. Archie liked both kinds of music, and the only instruction he left about his funeral playout music was “astonish me!”; but after some mediation from Sharon Small’s improbably glamorous Church of Scotland minister, Ronnie and Archie reach an elegant compromise, involving a brief closing cabaret that has the audience whooping with delight.
There’s nothing complex here, and nothing very original; the 30-minute show is like a well-shaped, upmarket episode of Still Game. Its saving grace, though – in Marilyn Imrie’s deft production – lies in the sheer comic flair of Paterson’s dialogue, which is full of beautifully-timed one-liners about the various absurdities and minor joys of late middle age; in its strong sense of the survival of a certain kind of quiet, humorous middle-class Scottishness, always undervalued in a culture whose self-image tends to veer between the cliches of working-class grit and Highland aristocracy; and in Paterson’s beautifully-pitched performance as Allan, trying to navigate his way through the predictable family tensions to a decent send-off for his old friend. The play is canty and couthy and kindly, in other words, and it won’t set the heather on fire; but in its own way, Astonishing Archie is also the best.
Down on Glasgow’s South Side, meanwhile, Tramway is rounding off its autumn performance season with a visit from Fuel, the London-based producing company for alternative and experimental performance run by David MacLennan’s niece Kate McGrath, and Louise Blackwell. The six-day Fuelfest at Tramway will feature four recent Fuel productions including the award-winning Simple Things In Life, tiny micro-performances in garden sheds already seen in Edinburgh in 2011, at the Botanic Gardens; and later in the week, there’s a chance to see 2009 Fringe First winner Inua Ellams present his latest solo show, and to join British/German group Uninvited Guests in their new piece Make Better Please, about what’s in the news, and how you feel about it.
For their opening show, though, Fuel chose David Rosenberg’s Ring, a piece of audio theatre which uses headphones, recorded voices and sound, and a completely dark theatre space, to construct a whole new world of experience around the listening audience member. To me, it seemed as though the content of this 45-minute piece – written by Glen Neath – didn’t quite measure up to the potential of the form; try as I might, I couldn’t persuade myself to care much about what seemed to be a murderous fallout among a group of seven middle-class friends in their twenties, who all fancy each other’s partners.
What’s exciting about the show, though, is the way it plays with the listener’s position in the story; coming close, disappearing into the distance again, rearranging the chairs in a symphony of sound that bears no relation to real events in the room, taking us from closed space to distant beach, and – most chillingly – making us know that in some sense we, the listeners, are the eighth person in the group, the hated Frances. The story is lightweight, and slightly irritating; but given a chance to work on a big, serious and far-reaching narrative, with a bit of social and political bite, this form of theatre could become mind-blowing in its power, and in its potential to conjure up new worlds.
Astonishing Archie at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday; Fuelfest continues at the Tramway, Glasgow, until Sunday.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
There’s nothing spectacular about Bill Paterson’s performance as younger brother Allan, in his own lunchtime play Astonishing Archie; yet it’s always a joy to see this supreme stage craftsman at work. Despite his later success in film and television drama from The Killing Fields to Sea Of Souls, Bill Paterson began his high-profile acting career in John McGrath’s legendary 7:84 production of the The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil. And the secret of his brilliance as a stage actor lies in the great lesson he learned from that kind of stripped-down theatre; that in the end, it’s not about the performance, but about the story, told here with a delicious light touch, and with simplicity, humour and grace.