1902 – Leith Arches

Directed by Nathan Scott-Dunn and Sands Stirling

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There pertains this elitist myth that art and sport (specifically theatre and football) don’t share a common ground, let alone a common audience.

Nonsense.

Sport is theatre. Theatre is sport. And let’s be frank, a fair heft of football involves grander performances than those of the National Theatre. 1902 collides the mammoth forces of live performance with the sparking eagerness for the football, particularly for the Hibernian team of Scotland. In the titular year 1902, the team won the Scottish Cup Final. In 2016, they had their chance to reclaim this title. It is here, in the corner of a Bonnyrigg pub, where our four young men hype themselves up at the chance of going to the match.

There’s one catch. Only one knows where the money for the tickets came from, and none of them knows the ultimate cost of repaying this ‘generous’ loan. In his infinite wisdom, Deeks has thought it a smashing idea to take a loan from the newly returned Craig, heir to the now vacant crime family throne. Pals Sambo, Zippy and Frankie first welcome the tickets – only to realise where the funds have come from, and the extreme measures they’ll have to go to pay off Craig.

Magnanimous in enthusiasm, passion and heart, the cast gives it their all and then some in their performances. The unstable aggression in moments has flitters of genuine terror from both Sands Stirling and Jonny Tulloch as Deeks older brother Tony and gang-family successor Craig.

The brutality, not only in physicality but in venomous words comes from a team familiar with football hooliganism and the seedier sides of the Lothians. Intense, Scott-Dunn and Stirling’s direction of the cast push them within the boundaries of the audience, reminiscent of Trainspotting in pusher the level of intimacy and discomfort. As such, any conscious audience members still uncomfortable with direct interaction and social distancing may want to air on the side of caution.

Now, chances are you’ll shed a tear come to the final bow – perhaps out of empathy, maybe cause you’re a Hibbie, but there’s also a real chance you’ll crack a few tears with bellyache. Chiefly from Josh Brock or Scott-Dunn’s energy and delivery, even the most cringe-worthy gags still land a unique punch. There’s a flood of humour, and not every joke lands, on occasion there’s a sense the performers suspect this and solve the issue with a facial recognition. The conviction in giving everything to the performance is etched into the performer’s faces, the strain to push themselves for a laugh, to make the atmosphere change come naturally to the entire cast, even the once inconsequential roles of the barkeep have turned into sudden firecrackers thanks to Ella Stokes; even if you can’t understand her ¾ of the time…

Beneath the humour, 1902 equally demonstrates the continued issue with the nation’s turmoil with class and drugs, and particularly the life of young working-class men as they endeavour to find a place – not just in life, but within their families and future. It’s a gradual decline, never pushing a false modesty or crocodile tears, instead of allowing the trauma of losing a father or the stresses of hopelessness to eek into the production naturally.

Visceral, this climax is a gut-punch, unexpected even amidst all that has come before. It’s in-yer-face without question, teeth-gnashing and the whites of the eyes intimidating the audience. It leads to a sorrowful, if powerful, conclusion, not a happy one, but a grounded one. And in place of empty words of grief, instead, 1902 communicates its emotions in an ancient way that we Scots fully appreciate – music. Though at first, it seems to be a mechanic of transition or humour, Sandy Bain’s instrumentals provide a reinforming for the emotional integrity of the story.

Leith Arches is a fitting home for these returning fans, it’s on-location theatre at its finest. This is the Fringe. A drink, a pie, a show, a laugh, and a tear. This is the in-person experience many have longed for, hidden away from the large-scale venues in a local pub at the bottom of the Walk.

1902 runs at The Leith Arches at 17.00pm and 19.30 on select days until August 30th. Tickets are available here.

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