JOYCE MCMILLAN on GRIT: THE MARTYN BENNETT STORY at the Tramway, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 7.6.14.
4 stars ****
IF YOU WANT TO understand the seismic wave of change that ran through Scottish culture in the 1980’s and 90’s – and that helped to lay the groundwork for the changed political scene we inhabit today – then you could do no better than head along to the Tramway tonight, or to Mull Theatre at Druimfin in two weeks’ time, to experience the sheer power of this latest show from Cora Bissett’s Pachamama Productions, based on the short but explosively creative life of the great Scottish fusion musician Martyn Bennett.
Born in Newfoundland in 1971, Bennett grew up in Scotland, travelling around the folk music scene with his mother Margaret, learning from some of the great singers and musicians of that radical decade. By the time he arrived at the Royal Sçottish Academy of Music and Drama, it was already obvious that he was bent on creating something new in Scottish music, that would combine the electronic beats of his generation with the great tradition he knew so well; and in the 1990’s, he and his band Cuillin became a global success, until his career was cut short by the illness that finally took his life when he was only 33.
In one sense, Cora Bissett’s approach to this hugely dramatic story is a simple, chronological one, reinforced by Kieran Hurley’s straighforward, heartfelt script; and there are occasions when the story and text seem almost overwhelmed by the range of theatrical resources Bissett brings to this Glasgow 2014 show. Over an intense 100 minutes, there’s not only dialogue, monologue, and Bennett’s terrific music; there’s also stunning film and AV footage, a 15-strong youth theatre chorus-cum-dance-crowd, and some intensely emotional dance sequences, which can often do little more than illustrate what has already been said and sung.
Yet for all its occasional sense of emotional and sensory overload, Grit is an irresistible show, borne along on a fine central performance from the great Sandy Grierson as Bennett. If you’re searching for political or emotional subtlety, you won’t find it here. You will though, experience the raw power of a moment when Scottish culture changed for good, combining a new pride in its past with a hugely dynamic sense of its creative future; and you will know, by the end of the show, why so many thousands around the world adored the spirit, the precision and the sheer creative genius of Martyn Bennett, and still mourn his early death, which robbed us of so much more.