JOYCE MCMILLAN on MR. BOLFRY at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for The Scotsman 6.9.14.
3 stars ***
IT IS one of the abiding myths about Scotland that this remains a far more religious society than England, bothered by old gods and demons long laid to rest south of the border. While the sturdy ghost of sectarianism still occasionaly walks the streets, though, all the available statistics show that over the last two generations, Christian belief has declined in Scotland as fast as in England; and it’s this truth that leaves J.M. Bridie’s fascinating 1943 play Mr. Bolfry so thoroughly stranded, on the rainswept shoreline of dramatic history.
For unlike Bridie’s Dr. Angelus – successfully revived at Pitlochry in 2011 – Mr. Bolfry deals not with the the eternal theme of a male psyche in spectacular midlife crisis, but with the very specific one of a group of wartime young people in rebellion against the strict Free Church Presbyterianism of a traditional Highland parish. Cohen and Cully are two young servicemen from London billeted in the manse of stiff-necked Free Church minister Mr. McCrimmon; Jean is McCrimmon’s niece, also up from London, recovering after a bomb incident. Jean and Cully are both young radical thinkers, bored and irritated by McCrimmon’s censorious moral certainty, and convinced that the face of religion he represents itself contains satanic elements; so they unearth an old book of spells, and conjure up a devil.
Cue the entrance of Dougal Lee’s charismatic and elegant Mr. Bolfry; and a long night of slippery and unsettling argument about good and evil, war and peace, the individual and society, Hitler and his enemies, and the extraordinary shock experienced by McCrimmon on seeing the supernatural world about which he constantly preaches appear before his eyes. Greg Powrie is outstanding as McCrimmon, a stuffed-shirt minister too intelligent not to understand how Bolfry’s visit challenges and changes his own faith; Karen Fishwick turns in an attractive, high-chinned performance as the feisty Jean, determined not to have her future dictated by roaring old theologians, whether satanic or godly. In the end, the play leaves behind an impression of fighting old battles, against a kind of institutionalised joylessness that was defeated long ago; and of playing up to some of the stereotypes of Scotland so beloved of the West End audiences for whom Bridie wrote. If the play is a period piece, though, it’s a rich, interesting and intelligent one; graced with a fine, sensitive production by Patrick Sandford, and played out with wit and energy against the mountain backdrop of Charles Cusick Smith’s atmospheric open set.