JOYCE MCMILLAN on COLQUHOUN & MACBRYDE at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 1.11.14.
4 stars ****
THEY APPEARED, they soared, they crashed, they burned, they died in poverty and obscurity. There is, in other words, a perfect dramatic arc to the story of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, the two mid-20th century Scottish artists who came out of Kilmarnock in the late 1930’s, formed an inseparable personal and artistic partnership in the days when homosexuality was still illegal, soared to a rare moment of fame and acclaim in wartime London, and then faded away in a haze of alcoholic squalor. And it’s a narrative captured with terrific wit, flair and creative fire in John Byrne’s 80-minute two-handed play about the two Roberts, first seen at the Royal Court in 1992, and now revived in the Tron’s Changing House as part of this year’s Glasgay! festival.
The story, of, course, is not a pretty one, and there are moments where it has to deal head-on with the determination of MacBryde, in particular, to become the very stereotype of the drunken alcoholic Scot in London, wandering the streets and pubs in a kilt, baring his bum, vomiting freely, and at one point inviting us all to join him in a chorus of A Wee Doch An Doris. Yet the sheer unstoppable wit and energy of Byrne’s dialogue, and its fierce cultural sophistication in navigating the world of visual art, might have been made to capture the huge positive passion and radical anger that drove the early career of these two brilliant painters; and to summon up the sheer, eternal fun of their glorious big adventure in the world of Mayfair galleries and Picture Post cover-portraits, as well as their complex and often tortured relationship with their own Scottish – or “Celtic” – identity.
Andy Arnold’s tiny gem of a studio production pulls no punches in portraying the rise and fall of this talented pair; its conclusion is memorably bleak, a searing image of self-destructiveness carried to its very limit. Yet in Andy Clark (as Colquhoun) and Stephen Clyde (as MacBryde) it has found two actors who give themselves to this fierce, tragic and hilarious short play with a terrific combination of passion, humour, intelligence and sheer theatrical skill. And they leave us with the feeling of having glimpsed something fundamental to Scotland’s recent inner history – the briilliance, the creative power, the backbeat of dangerous self-contempt, and the constant need to define ourselves through or against the great cultural capital to the south, where so many Scots prosper, and some come so spectacularly to grief.