Bloody Great Border Ballad Project, I’m With The Band

THEATRE

The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project
3 stars ***
Northern Stage at St. Stephen’s (Venue 73)
I’m With The Band
3 stars ***
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

THERE ARE claims and counter-claims about the presence or absence of Scotland’s independence referendum as a theme on this year’s Fringe. At one level, it’s constantly eclipsed by larger and more pressing political issues. And at another, artists in Scotland are often tentative around the divisive simplicity and simplification of the straight yes/no question.

So it’s perhaps significant that two of the shows in Edinburgh whch deal most directly with what Twitter calls #indyref come in part from south of the Border; and even then, their form is tentative. At St. Stephen’s, the Northern Stage compay of Newcastle, now led by Scottish director Lorne Campbell, offer up their Bloody Great Border Ballad Project, a loosely-structured nightly cabaret in which the company and its guest artists do three things. They tell personal stories about borders and what they mean to them, they add a new verse to an unfolding 21st century ballad about a baby found in a basket floating down the River Tweed between Scotland and England, and they invite the audience to choose, sing and record a song to welcome the next night’s audience.

The night I was there, the guest artists with the stories were the dazzling Scottish singer, writer and director Cora Bissett, and the magnificent Lucy Ellinson, whose solo performance in Grounded is winning acclaim at the Traverse; and there was a stunning addition to the ballad from the poet Molly Naylor, who, with Bissett and Ellinson, formed the most gifted backing-group I’ve ever seen, for our final recording of Proud Mary. The form of the show means that it will vary from night to night, in intensity and quality. Yet the open-ended, easygoing and convivial mood, generated by Lorne Campbell as host and Chris Thorpe’s withWings band, seems just right for the current phase of the debate; even when the collective decision of artists and audience is to ignore #indyref completely.

Tim Price’s I’m With The Band, by contrast, offers a much more structured attempt to create a play out of the UK’s constitutional debate; but it wears its central political metaphor so proudly on its sleeve that the sheer weight of it begins to crush the drama. Co-produced by the Traverse and the Wales Millennium Centre, and directed with great flair by Traverse associate Hamish Pirie, the play tells the story of an Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman and a Northern Irishman – Damien, Barry, Gruff and Aaron – who have been together for a decades, as a major rock band. When the band’s finances fall apart, though, Barry takes the opportunity to leave and do his own thing. Price is perhaps most astute about the changes this provokes in the relationship between the Englishman and the Welshman; and most terrfiyingly poetic in his vision of the impact on Aaron, and his fraught marriage to the Catholic Siobhan.

So far, so funny and briliant. The show unfolds as a kind of lads’ delight, full of heated rows and banter, and driven by a gig playlist, with twelve titles ranging from All In This Together to Scottish Diplomacy; and there are four daft, delicious performances from James Hillier, Andy Clark, Matthew Bulgo and Declan Rodgers. In the end, Price’s story loses the plot; Barry’s independent life is a disaster, marriages collapse everywhere, and the whole metaphor begins to seem over-extended. It’s a brave effort, though, to imagine the UK-wide conversation that should be happening, but isn’t; even if its takes an exceptionally laddish form, and almost always ends in a punch-up.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24, 25
pp. 261, 292

ENDS

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