Monthly Archives: September 2014

Tragic (When My Mother Married My Uncle)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TRAGIC (WHEN MY MOTHER MARRIED MY UNCLE) at Cumbernauld Theatre, for The Scotsman 29.9.14.
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4 stars ****

WITH A fascinating full-scale version of Hamlet currently on stage at the Citizens’, this is an ideal moment for playwright Iain Heggie to unleash his small-scale alternative take on Shakespeare’s best-known tragedy, now on an 11-date Scottish tour that will take it to Kirkcaldy this Wednesday, Aberdeen on Friday, and Edinburgh’s Summerhall next week.

In Tragic (When My Mother Married My Uncle), Hamlet is a 21st century student, alone on stage with his platform bed, desk-area and screen, who uses his i-pad to introduce us to the various characters in the sad story of his father’s death, his mother’s sudden remarriage to his dodgy uncle, and the political and personal mayhem which follows.  Even more interestingly, he retells this famliar story, over 75 minutes, in a straightforward and sometimes flat-footed modern Scottish demotic – “She’s like, what’re you doing here in my room, Hamlet?” – that walks a tight-rope between a sharp and brilliantly accessible rewrite of an essential story, and the kind of sudden comic bathos that results when audiences recognise a familiar Shakespearean scene recast in deliberately down-to-earth language

If Heggie’s new version of Hamlet takes some high-octane risks, though – and sometimes falls off its high wire into easy laughter – it also often achieves a memorable poignancy and intensity; thanks to a fine, controlled performance from Sean Purden Brown as a demotic Prince whose pain and incredulity often forbids facile responses, and a production, by Heggie himself, that paces the darkening story to perfection, against a driving backbeat of Scottish electronic rock.

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Choir

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CHOIR at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The  Scotsman 29.9.14.
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3 stars ***

THE IDEA of Judy Garland as a global icon for gay men is one of the most familiar landmarks in postwar popular culture.  It’s unlikely, though, that the theme has ever been given such a strange and comprehensive workout as it receives in this poignant, eccentric and haunting solo touring show by Encounter Productions, created as part of a joint project to generate more new theatre from the north-east of England.

On a stage dominated by a large movie screen, and otherwise furnished only with a fridge and kitchen table, actor Donald McBride appears almost naked, a skinny elderly man dressed in nothing but tight white briefs, and – before long – the inevitable red shoes.  In Lee Mattinson’s strange, hallucinatory, magic-realist one-hour text, he plays Francis, a gay bloke from a small town in the north who insists that he is the reincarnation of Judy, born with a perfect recall of her entire early life.  Francis’s story is told through brief, episodic monologue scenes, punctuated by songs from the back catalogue of Judy Garland videos; there’s material from The Wizard Of Oz, but also film of an older Judy singing classic torch-songs like Smile, and I Who Have Nothing.

The story itself, though, often seems oddly out of tune with the show’s title, which gives the idea of choral singing a central role it never really achieves in the narrative.  Francis’s life is blighted by a single sexual encounter, back in the 1990’s, with a man who infects him with the AIDS virus; after a vow to avoid the mistakes Judy made in her life, Francis refuses to take pills of any kind, and therefore will not swallow his AIDS medication.

After an early rejection by the conventional choir in his home town, Francis does find a kind of redemption – and some late-life love – in a loud-and-proud chorus made up of people variously rejected by society.   There’s a sense, though, that the image of many voices raised in song finally matters less to Mattinson than the image of the solo diva, singing and dying alone; and despite the elegance and flair of Jen Malarkey’s production and Donald McBride’s performance, this intense poetic journey through the psyche of one gay man often seems slightly unfocussed, as though the story is striving to look in one direction, while secretly yearning to keep gazing in another, back towards the image of a star who has gone.

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Hamlet (Citizens’ 2014)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HAMLET at the Citizens’s Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 27.9.14.
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4 stars ****

THE TIME seems to be the 1960’s, or perhaps the early 1970’s.  When Brian Ferguson’s nervy, furious Hamlet wants to take notes about the evil he sees around him, he uses an old-fashioned BBC-style portable tape recorder, slung over his shoulder.  Around the back of the stage sit more big reel-to-reel recorders, like the equipment in a pre-internet government surveillance centre; but in Tom Piper’s set and Nikola Kodjabashia’s sound design, there’s also a hint of an old radiophonic workshop, with musical instruments lying around to be picked up and played by cast members, occasional blasts of electronic sound, voices switching into amplification and out again.

And at one level, the references to this period in social history make perfect sense.  Ever since the 1960’s – as family breakdown and divorce have become a more widespread across the west – directors have been casting Hamlet as a furious teenage boy appalled by his mother’s new relationship; very often, these sulky teenage princes completely unbalance the staging of a play which is not only about family and psychology, but also about kingship, and the ruin of a state.

Now, though, here comes a production, from Dominic Hill and the Citizens’ Theatre, that goes so boldly and directly for the family drama at the heart of Shakespeare’s play – even setting many of its scenes in an improvised  palace living-room with sofa and standard-lamp – that it has the paradoxical effect of pulling the whole drama back into focus, in thrilling and fascinating style.

The secret of the production’s success is twofold.  First, instead of simply assuming our sympathy for Hamlet’s rage and disgust, it concentrates fiercely on him, pulling apart and examining his horror to a depth that makes us fully aware of Hamlet’s weaknesses, but also increasingly, poignantly conscious of his courage, intelligence and honesty.  It’s an interpretation that places a huge weight on the shoulders of Brian Ferguson’s frail-looking, bespectacled Hamlet; but he rises to the challenge with terrific emotional nerve, shaping Hamlet’s series of mighty soliloquies into fierce, dynamic waymarks on an unforgettable inner journey.

And then secondly, by linking the action to a time when the rebellion of youth itself had huge political resonances, the production offers a powerful insight into the enduring signifcance of Hamlet’s revolt, not only against his mother and uncle, but also – at a deeper level – against the stern instruction of his father’s spirit to complete an ancient ritual of revenge.  The whole nine-strong cast of Hill’s production seem absolutely at one with the picture painted by the production, with Peter Guinness as a suave and tormented Claudius, and Cliff Burnett as a strange, effete and bullying Polonius, in particularly impressive form.

And when Meghan Tyler’s clever, complex and beautiful Ophelia transforms her “mad scene” by coming to the microphone and roaring out her rage, grief, agony and sexual damage like some young Janis Joplin caught between blues and death metal, this Hamlet reaches a level of nerve-wrenching intensity and tragedy rarely achieved in more conventionally poetic productions; an intensity well earned by Brian Ferguson’s brave and ground-breaking central performance, and by a company who richly deserved their first-night standing ovation, at the Citizens’ on Wednesday.

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Striking The Balance: Women In Scottish Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WOMEN IN THEATRE for the Scotsman Magazine, 27.9.14. _________________________________________________________

ON MONDAY of this week, a group of leading women in British theatre assembled in London to debate what can be done to improve female representation in what often sees itself as the UK’s most radical and inclusive art-form.  On the day they met, they were told, only 29% of major shows playing in London had been directed by women; astonishingly, only one of them, Agatha Christie’s 62-year-old hit The Mousetrap, was actually written by a woman.  And the discussion ranged over various measures that might be taken to shift the balance, including inviting directors of leading theatres to pledge themselves to achieve overall gender equality in casting, across each year.

And I have to say that I found myself reading all this with a certain sense of complacency.  The figures in Scotland, I thought, were surely better than that these days.  The first director of the National Theatre of Scotland, Vicky Featherstone, was a woman, and there are now many female artistic directors across the country, from Orla O’Loughlin at the Traverse to Jackie Wylie at the Arches in Glasgow, and Jemima Levick, joint artistic director of Dundee Rep.  We also have a dedicated woman-led company in Stellar Quines; and since David MacLennan’s sad death in June, another woman – Susannah Armitage – has taken on the role of producer at A Play, A Pie And A Pint in Glasgow.

So I began to crunch the numbers, taking as a tiny sample the 13 professionally-produced shows I have reviewed in Scotland since the end of the Edinburgh Festival; and found myself unpleasantly surprised by the results.   It’s true that of those 13 shows, six were directed by women, although three of those  were in the shoestring environment of A Play, A Pie And A Pint.  When it came to writers, though, the balance was fairly shocking, with 14 male writers represented (two of the shows involved two male writers) and only one woman; and the casting was also heavily male-dominated, with 41 roles for men, and only 22 for women.

Now there are, of course, many ways of tackling this traditional gender bias in theatre, from the kinds of pledges discussed  in London on Monday, to the simple device of taking great roles originally written for men, and inviting women to play them; the great Maxine Peake is giving an acclaimed performance as Hamlet in Manchester, as I write.

The problem, though, is that it’s not possible to legislate for artistic inspiration; and absolutely futile to try to tell artists what they should want to write about.  As it happens, this autumn’s gender balance in Scottish theatre is set to improve soon, with Sue Glover’s great all-female play Bondagers about to take the stage at the Lyceum, a new all-female touring version of Gogol’s The Gamblers opening in Dundee next month, and John Byrne’s new version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in Glasgow from next week, and at the King’s, Edinburgh in October.

Yet the reasons for the heavy male presence in the early part of the season include D.C. Jackson’s powerful embrace of the gangster-movie genre in his new Lyceum black comedy Kill Johhny Glendenning – which features six male characters and just one female – and the inspired grumpy-old-men creativity of  Still Game, a show which famously features six leading male characters, and only one woman, the unlovely Isa.

So do we want to stifle the use of traditionally male-dominated genres – or of classic texts which almost always have male-dominated casts – to achieve better gender balance in theatre?  I think not.  The evidence suggests, though, that the more gender balance is monitored, and the more those in charge of arts organisations become aware of it, the easier it becomes to match those traditionally “male” strands of drama with work that reflects female lives and experience.  And given the amount of female talent available in Scotland, I suspect that a slightly more determined effort to do that, across Scotland’s theatres, might now produce some impressive and exciting results.

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Calamity Jane

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CALAMITY JANE at the Edinburgh Playnouse, for The Scotsman, 27.9.14.
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3 stars ***

NO SOONER has Annie Get Your Gun disappeared over the horizon, than the Playhouse finds itself playing host to another postwar musical about a woman who dons breeches and proves herself a world-class sharpshooter, before climbing back into her skirts – and something more like her appointed womanly role – when it comes to getting and keeping a man.

If the zeitgeist is trying to tell us something about the lonely fate of the liberated female, though, it does it in cheerful, unassuming style in the Watermill Theatre’s touring version of Calamity Jane, based on the iconic 1953 film starring Doris Day and Howard Keel.   There are moments when Nikolai Foster’s mid-scale production – in the instrument-in-hand style that combines cast members and band, to create musical theatre on a slightly less lavish scale – seems a little pensive and downbeat for what’s essentially a light-as-air frothy romance set in a mythical version of the American west; and the lovely Jodie Prenger, as Calamity, often looks more anxious than swashbuckling.

The songs and music are fine though, with Nick Winston’s inspired line-dance choreography coming into its own in classic numbers like The Deadwood Stage and Just Blew In From The Windy City, and Tom Lister singing quite beautifully as Calamity’s admirer and sparring-partner, Wild Bill Hickok.  And by the time we reach the final slightly implausible wedding scene, the audience are happy just to sing and clap along with one of the most light-hearted feelgood musicals in the whole postwar song-book.

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It’s Only Words

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on IT’S ONLY WORDS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 27.9.14.
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3 stars ***

THERE’S CLEARLY something up, with the woman locked in a municipal public toilet who is the central character in Sylvia Dow’s latest play, essentially a 50-minute molongue with occasional interventions from two other characters.  She looks like an ordinary housewife in late middle-age, hanging her coat on a hook, putting down her shopping bags, availing herself of the facilities; but then she takes out a book, sits on a small bench in the toilet, and refuses to come out.

It takes a long time for the full shape of her predicament to emerge, though, in this delicately-written but downbeat piece for the current Play, Pie and Pint season; we hear a great deal about Mrs. Moore’s interest in books, and in possible library classifications of the graffiti on the toilet walls, before we get down the story of her love for, and enduring marriage to, a faithless man who finally falls deeply in love with another woman.  Eileen Nicholas gives a gorgeous, humorous, and deeply-felt performance as this ageing heroine, ably supported by Kirstin McLean as the young policewoman who arrives to check on her, and Jamie Francis as her handsome husband in his youth.  The play, though, seems like one of those that ends where it ought to begin; and although Stasi Schaeffer’s production is full of care for the material, it needs more pace and theatrical energy to being it fully to life.

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The Man Jesus

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE MAN JESUS at Dundee Rep, for The Scotsman, 27.9.14.
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4 stars ****

THERE HAVE BEEN countless reinterpretations of the life of Jesus over the last half-century, ranging from Jesus Christ Superstar to Mel Gibson’s Passion.  I can’t recall a version, though, more quietly, insistently and disturbingly political than Matthew Hurt’s The Man Jesus, performed by the great Simon Callow in this bold and breathtaking solo show, now on tour around Britain; it was downright unsettling – in Dundee, just a week after Scotland’s referendum –  to watch a version of the life that dwells so searchingly on Jesus’s uneasy relationship with the politics of national liberation that gripped Palestine 2000 years ago.

Also seen this week in Musselburgh, Joseph Alford’s powerful production is set on a stage bare apart from a pile of wooden chairs; Callow appears dressed in trousers and jacket, with an open-necked shirt.  As soon as he speaks, though, it’s clear that this is no ordinary perspective on the story.  The first voice we hear is that of a young, pregnant Mary, walking on the roads around Nazareth, trying not to look at the bodies of the young “terrorists” crucified along the roadside; her child, son of God or not, is also a child of rape.  Over two riveting hours, we also meet John the Baptist, Judas, Simon Peter, Herod, Pontius Pilate, and a myriad of others; every accent in the British Isles gets an airing, to varied effect.

In the end, though, we understand this; that we are watching the story of a people – poor people, ordinary people – searching for earthly leadership and empowerment in hard times, and finally being offered something quite other.  It’s a tough message; but this brilliant version of the life of Christ meets that complexity face to face, and leaves us to ponder it, for ourselves.

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After The Referendum Earthquake: Unionist Parties Committed To Moving In Haste Through A New Landscape That Demands Thought, Caution, And Serious Grassroots Debate – Column 26.9.14.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 26.9.14
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THE INDYREF EARTHQUAKE has come and gone; and now we find ourselves – perhaps for the first time since 1979 – in a completely new political landscape, full of deep, unexpected precipices, sharp new divisions, and unfamiliar alliances.  Mapping that landscape is a process that will take years, not days or months; it is the kind of moment, full of confused currents of grief, shock, triumph, anger and bafflement, in which wise political heads, from Confucius onwards, have always counselled caution, and the avoidance of hasty action.

Yet in one of the thousands of fascinating paradoxes thrown up by Scotland’s remarkable referendum debate, we also face a situation in which extremely hasty action is exactly what the nation was promised, in those panicky last few days before the vote.  I’m not sure that many voters in Scotland were fully convinced by Gordon Brown’s timetable for new powers for Scotland’s parliament, when he whpped it out of his back pocket just ten days before the end of a two-and-a-half-year campaign.  Yet within days, all three main Westminster party leaders had signed up to The Vow, pledging more powers for Holyrood by 25 January next year (Burns Night, that is), in the context of a continuation of the Barnett formula, the budget agreement which currently gives Scotland higher per capita public spending than England or Wales, in return for Westminster’s continuing control over Scotland’s territory and resources.

The problem, though, is that the way in which these proposals were produced, and the sheer speed of the implementation schedule, renders them all but useless, in terms of any real advance for democracy in these islands.  The hurried introduction of the proposals, at such a shamefully late date in the debate, itself epitomises everything that is out-of-touch and dysfunctional about Britain’s current system of governance.  The proposals themselves are vague to a degree; certainly, all of Scotland’s elected politicians should seek to avoid any system which makes them responsible for an even larger tranche of Scotland’s vital public spending, while giving them control only over income tax, a hugely exposed and politically sensitive tax which they could not vary upward without inflicting a huge comparative disadvantage on Scotland within the UK.

And within the wider politics of the UK, it was always clear that any package of this kind would have great difficulty in making its way through a Westminster Parliament currently obsessed with the power of UKIP to stir the sleeping forces of English nationalism.   Within hours, David Cameron was seeking to head off his angry back-benchers by linking new powers for Scotland to a simultaneous deal on “English votes for English laws”.  Meanwhile, the genie of possible constitutional change in England was well and truly out of the bottle, with a clamour of voices pitching for everything from a separate English parliament based in York, to devolution to England’s major cities on a scale to match the powers of the Scottish Parliament; in his closing speech to the Labour Party Conference on Tuesday, Ed Miliband could even be heard promising full reform of the House of Lords at last, a transformation of the Upper House into a 21st century Senate for Britain’s nations and regions.

The new debate on the UK’s constitutional future, in other words, is at best embryonic and confused, and at worst completely  incoherent.  The missing element, of course, is the kind of widespread grassroots movement for constitutional change that characterised the years before the Scottish devolution referendum of 1997, when a wide range of political parties, local authorities, and civil society organisations came together, over a period of almost a decade, to create what has proved a reasonably successful and robust scheme for the operation of a new Scottish Parliament.  Without this kind of long-term debate and consultation, successful constitutional reform is unlikely.  And although calls are now being made for a UK-wide Constitutional Convention to hammer out some of these issues – and Ed Miliband supported those calls in his Conference speech – there is no chance that any such Convention, even if convened, could reach any significant agreement on the complexities of UK constitutional reform within less than two or three years.

So for now, Scotland has to face the looming negotiation on its promised new powers alone, and deeply divided.  For Scotland’s politicians, the challenge must be to avoid the short-term trap of accepting new responsibilities without real additional power; the effort to achieve consensus on that will probably be one of the first and toughest tests of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership as First Minister.

And for the rest of us, out here in a Scottish civil society now  aroused and divided as never before, I guess we may do best if we bear in mind two basic rules.  First, that if the governance of Scotland is to be improved, over the coming years, then we cannot wait for politicians to tell us what they plan to do; we need to clarify and articulate our own demands, through every organisation or party we belong to, and to use every means we can to shift the agenda of change in a more radical and democratic direction – one that might, for example, include serious reform of Scotland’s sclerotic local government.

And secondly, we should not forget that for the vast majority of people, constitutional matters are never more than a means to an end.   The fact that it was “not about nationalism” was one of the strengths of Scotland’s historic “yes” campaign; it claimed to be about a fight for greater social justice, and often was.  And now that the referendum is over, that same truth demands open minds, among both “yes”supporters and left-leaning “no” voters, about how each of us chooses to pursue the cause of social justice, in the coming years.  Some will join the SNP and Scottish Green Party, some will soldier on with Labour, many will throw their energy into local campaigns and intiatives.  And for now, all we can do is be kind to one another, and look for a place to begin; as we re-start the long trudge towards social justice and greater democracy, across this new post-referendum terrain.

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Still Game

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on STILL GAME at The Hydro, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 22.9.14. __________________________________________________________

4 stars ****

WHEN MAJOR rock stars appear at The Hydro in Glasgow, they impress with their ability to fill the mighty 13,000-seat auditorium for two or three nights.  But back down, Beyonce, and tip your hat, Rod Stewart; for the crusty veterans of the cult BBC Scotland comedy show Still Game are set to play The Hydro for a full three weeks, with barely an empty seat in the house.

They’re generation “No” and proud of it, the bunch of none-too-fragrant old gits first created by Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan for  their sketch-show Chewin’ The Fat; truculent, unimpressed, and instinctively hostile to anything invented after 1970.  There’s nothing low-tech, though, about director Michael Hines’s new stadium version of the show, which uses everything from giant screens to an all-singing, all-dancing Glasgow Bollywood finale, to deliver a vintage two-and-a-half hour story, in which the show’s two central characters Jack and Victor – played by Kiernan and Hemphill – hatch up a plan to use barman Boabby’s new i-pad to skype their way into Jack’s daughter’s renewal-of-vows ceremony in Canada.

The show’s familiar settings are all there, both live on stage and projected large on the huge screens; and so, to roars of approval, the action moves from The Clansman bar, to Jack’s flat, to Navid’s corner shop, accompanied by huge, lyrical exterior shots of the show’s fictional  Glasgow home turf, Craiglang, and a fierce, mashed-up rap soundtrack.

It’s not just the technology, though, that helps Still Game to succeed as a live show on a unique scale; for in a cheeky meta-theatrical twist, Kernan and Hemphill send Jack and Victor wandering into a theoretical discussion about the idea of the “fourth wall”, and then bursting straight through it, to chat up the roaring crowd  with all the aplomb of a pair of veteran pantomime stars. In no time at all, Sanjeev Kholi’s Navid is out among the audience trying to flog us fizzy drinks, while Steve the evil bookie tries to muscle into the action from his seat in the stalls.  All the show’s original stars are firmly in place, from Gavin Mitchell’s Barman Boabby and Clansman regulars Tam and Winston to Jane McCarry’s Isa, the only woman in sight.  And by the time Isa drinks some accidental magic-mushroom soup, triggering the show’s mind-blowing Bollywood finale, the audience is enjoying the night of its life, in a show that earned its place in sitcom history with its rare combination of geriatric wit, ruthless unsentimentality and unstoppable life-force, and demonstrates here that it has lost none of its edge.

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Kill Johnny Glendenning

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on KILL JOHNNY GLENDENNING at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 22.9.14. __________________________________________________________

4 stars ****

IT’S A SENSITIVE weekend, following the emotional roller-coaster of the referendum debate, for any show to be exposing the dark underbelly of Scottish life with the kind of ruthless flair shown by Ayrshire playwright D.C. Jackson in this fierce opening blast to the autumn season at the Royal Lyceum.  Thanks to a fantastically bold and inventive script, though, and a fast, fearless and witty production by the Lyceum’s Mark Thomson, the experience is somehow more life-enhancing than alarming, or depressing.

Co-produced with the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow – where it appears next month – Jackson’s new drama is set in the West End of Glasgow, and in the Ayrshire badlands between Glasgow’s gangster underworld and the well-practised thuggery of Norther Ireland’s former paramilitaries, in an age when the Troubles are over, but some still use violence to further their own ends.

The scene of the first act – with overtones not only of Martin McDonagh, whose wild cat-tearing drama The Lieutenant Of Inishmore is an obvious reference, but also of Reservoir Dogs, Deliverance, and Cold Comfort Farm – is the squalid kitchen of a bleak and filthy pig-farm in Ayrshire, whose cadaverous steward Auld Jim – played in tremendous lugubrious style by Kern Falconer – runs a sideline in disposing of inconvenient corpses by feeding them to his pigs.  His services are much appreciated by suave Glasgow gangland chief MacPherson, two of whose junior goons have just arrived with a bound and kidnapped journalist called Buchanan, who is currently locked in a kitchen cupboard.

Much black-as-night hilarity ensues, as the goons accidentally murder Buchanan, while Auld Jim stoldily brews undrinkable tea; but the action acquires a much sharper edge with arrival of MacPherson himself – played in terrific Glasgow style by Paul Samson – and of the notorious Johnny Glendenning, a blisteringly violent Belfast killer who is simultaneously publishing memoirs about the paramilitary past he is supposed to have left behind, while pursuing his career as a modern drugs baron and enforcer.

And it’s around David Ireland’s astonishing, contradictory, yet briliantly believable and subtle performance as Glendenning that the rest of the play takes shape, as the second-act action flips back several hours to the scene of the kidnap in Buchanan’s West End flat, and takes us through the ensuing day and night of mayhem from a completely different angle.  The ending is abrupt, perhaps too much so for those – like me – who are slow to untangle gangster plots. Yet this show boasts a stunning series of performances, not only from David Ireland and Paul Sansom, but from Steven McNicoll as Buchanan, Philip Cairns as the senior goon Dominic, and Joanne Thomson as Dominic’s no-holds-barred nine-months pregnant wife, Kimberley.  And if Jackson’s script is not for the faint-hearted – studded as it is with ear-blistering levels of obscenity – it finally delivers a searing Scottish gangster drama for our times, not entirely clear in its overall meaning, but so full of rich, telling and hilarious detail that it hardly seems to matter.

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