JOYCE MCMILLAN ON DORIS, DOLLY, AND MORAG FULLARTON’S POPULAR THEATRE for Scotsman Magazine, 28.2.15.
IT’S ALMOST ten o’clock on a Sunday night at Oran Mor in Byres Road; but there’s no sign that anyone in the downstairs nightclub venue wants to stop partying. During the day, from Monday to Saturday, this is the space that plays host to Oran Mor’s Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime theatre. Sometimes, though you can also catch an evening show here; and tonight, the four women taking a well-earned bow – while the audience joins in a standing ovation – are Gail Watson, Frances Thorburn, Clare Waugh, and musical director Hilary Brooks, the cast of Doris & Dolly And A Wee Bit More, a witty and sometimes thought-provoking miniature tribute show that has just taken us on a whistle-stop singalong tour of defining moments in the lives of five great female performers – Doris Day, Dolly Parton, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, and a hilariously rude Julie Andrews.
As the cast take their bows, though, there’s no sign anywhere of the woman behind the show, the writer and director Morag Fullarton; she’s somewhere at the back, revelling in the audience response, staying out of the limelight. Yet there’s plenty to be learned about the story of popular theatre in Scotland, by loooking at Morag Fullarton’s extraordinary forty-year career, which began at the Royal Scottish Academy Of Music And Drama in the mid-1970’s. From 1978 to 1990, Fullarton was artistic director of Borderline Theatre Company, based in Ayr, working alongside the other great radical theatre-makers of the day, including John McGrath and David MacLennan, to create popular touring theatre that would speak to ordinary people all over Scotland, and employing actors and writers like Alex Norton, Bill Paterson, Billy Connolly, and a uoung Alan Cumming.
After Borderline, Fullarton saw what she calls “the writing on the wall” for arts council funding of popular touring theatre, and moved into television, working as a director on series like That’s Life, Cardiac Arrest and The Grand; she still has a thriving television career today. And in the last few years, the existence of A Play, A Pie And A Pint has drawn her back into theatre for the first time in almost 20 years. She directed Play, Pie, Pint’s smash-hit short stage version of Casablanca; and before Doris & Dolly, Oran Mor’s owner-impresario Colin Beattie had already conjured up a terrific evening hit for the venue by asking Fullarton to write and direct her hugely successful 2010 tribute show, A Bottle Of Wine And Patsy Cline.
So why don’t we see Fullarton directing shows on Scotland’s main stages, a generation on from her early years at Borderline? Perhaps we soon will; the National Theatre of Scotland’s director Laurie Sansom was to be seen in the Oran Mor crowd last Sunday night, singing along to Somewhere Over The Rainbow with the best of us.
The truth is, though, that Fullarton represents a tradition of practical, unpretentious, often female-inflected popular theatre that has been slightly out of fashion, these last 20 years, and that also dares, these days, to dabble in the realms of the pastiche and the small-scale tribute show, sometimes viewed with scorn by serious students of theatre. “To me, the two art-forms – stage and television – are completely different, “ says Fullarton. “And for me, theatre has always been about making that vital, direct connection with the audience; that’s our Scottish tradition of performance, after all, and without it nothing happens.
“And yes, today that often means that you are working with the music and the movies everyone loves, that make up our common culture – I’m just working now on a mini-version of Sunset Boulevard, for Juliet Cadzow. But I love those films and songs so much that that never seems like a problem; and to see how the audience love them too, and join in with the performance, and learn a bit, too, along the way – well, that makes me very, very happy.”
Doris, Dolly And A Little Bit More will be at Assembly on the Edinburgh Fringe, 2015.