The Stornoway Way – The Studio, Festival Theatre

Written by Kevin MacNeil

Directed by Matthew Zajac

Touring Scotland, tickets available from Dog Star Theatre: http://www.dogstartheatre.co.uk/the-stornoway-way.html

Endlessly lyrical, Kevin MacNeil’s take on his best-selling novel lends itself to the musical format well. With each song have originality in composition, with a few notable exceptions standing out as clear favourites. To hear Gaelic sung in a natural form, with new arrangements, is a fitting match for the production. Encouraging a rejuvenation with a language by infusing it’s archaic, island tones with fresh lyricism. Naomi Stiratt, Chloe Ann-Tyler and Rachel Kennedy’s vocals, particularly in Gaelic, are a staunch reason for The Stornoway Way’s moderate success.

Awash with colourful characters, we first open on the cold, brisk blue Isle of Lewis. With a drink rich community, everyday life centres on the pursuits of merriment, ‘chicken’, and a further chaser to follow the first one. Chicken, a term for Famous Grouse Whiskey, is a lifeblood for the islanders. It’s a warming agent, a talking point for communities, and as the inhabitants gather to sing, talk life and, well, you guessed it – drink, it feels as though The Stornoway Way takes from Local Hero on its opening up of the outer Hebrides and Isles of Scotland. In reality, it plunges focus onto a singular, not very likeable, but roguishly charming hero – Roman.

Dreamer, romanticist, narcissist, and all around, a bit of an arse. Roman is the guy many would envy, charismatic with his deliberately misleading Gaelic, terrific vocals courtesy of gender-bending cast member Stirrat, but his reliance on a liquid crutch is one all too familiar. Forever patient, friend Eilidh is understandable in her frustrations with helping Roman achieve his dream by travelling to Edinburgh to record an album, only to be abandoned in return.

Maintaining a focus on Roman’s downward spiral into depression, fuelled by his love of the dram, the stage adaptation also attempts to divert a small amount of attention away. Aiming to secure further character development, as well as shoehorn in additional songs, it’s a double-edged premise. For the occasional character, such as Eva, it brings biting commentary and gripping drama, which was sorely lacking. Unfortunately, other character decisions fail to add much, eking into the length of the show which stretches itself excessively.

Roman’s characterisation fails in one key element, and it has nothing to do with performer Stiratt, who garners all she can. The issue is that the character’s motivations, while identifiable in people we encounter in day to day lives, are weak. The isolation of an island community isn’t built enough to offer a reason to extend sympathy. Psychologically, the darkening clouds surround Roman, hastening his toxic masculinity, but it isn’t until his argument with Eva where we get a sense of the self-obsessive, self-destructive manipulation he is capable of. Both Stiratt and Ann-Tyler are giving out a tremendous amount more than the script offers. Building to the keenest performance with Ann-Tyler’s broken, tired strumming’s of the guitar, lamenting her good intentions.

Its dramaturgy fails to fully capture its intention, shifting focus to the big city for a fish out of water narrative, it leaves behind an island setting – wonderfully designed, built as an aetherial, solitary space. Multi-purpose, lit wonderfully, its use as various locations is inventive, shifting from Edinburgh pub, Island chapel or ocean waves. Setting for the final scene, a remnant of what the entire production should have shifted towards, an amalgam of desperation, yet freedom is a touching moment.

Shifting to the stage, The Stornoway Way’s attempts at meta-commentary on theatrical tropes are a welcome addition, but one too many waters the joke. It reduces the narrative to contextualisation, bordering on panto territory, explaining far beyond what is required. It so desperately, valiantly wants to illustrate the dangers of alcohol’s seductive appeal, that it disconnects from the story to pursue this venture. Scatterings of investible songs, with some powerful performances, make MacNeil’s stage adaptation a venture worthy of pursuing, no doubt improving with time.

An Inspector Calls – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Written by J.B Priestley

Directed by Stephen Daldry

It’s a visit none of us desires, when An Inspector Calls, compelling us to reveal the slightest detail, even if we haven’t done anything wrong. What though, if you had done something? No matter how trivial it may seem, what if your actions had led to something horrendous? As the portentous Birley family wine, dine and celebrate their daughter’s engagement, their evening is about to take a turn, a turn which has made An Inspector Calls one of the previous centuries prominent works of the stage.

A staple of the English department, J. B. Priestley’s text has gone through as many adaptations, iterations and re-stagings as humanly possible. So, when a difference occurs, when a design framework captures the dollhouse toying of Inspector Goole in such a unique manner, one does take note. A tale on class, socialism, ‘white knight’ gentlemen and the welfare state, Stephen Daldry’s ability to encapsulate this into a one-act production is staggeringly impressive.

Balancing itself precariously, there are reminiscents of radio-drama, a maniacal melodramatic delivery which feels as though we are to hear, rather than see the performers. A young boy, delivering a swift kick to a clunking radio sparks off events – from curtain up, you know this is a production of high calibre. Sodden, torn apart streets are the playground of these working-class children, as the scaled house contains the blusterous bourgeoisie. Ian MacNeil’s notorious staging of the production, held upon timbers, surrounded by streetlamps and blown apart cobbles, is still a triumph of set design. It’s enthralling aesthetically, toying with levels and powerplay, an becomes a board for the Inspector to set his pawns in a manner of his choosing.

With a wealth of tremendously impressive performances under his hat, Liam Brennan was always a sure-fire hit for Inspector Goole. Few though could have anticipated just how exquisite this transformation is. Unearthly, Goole has always been a character of note for performers. Easy to unbalance, vilify or write off as over-the-top. Brennan is a walking paradox. Cold, but welcoming and warm. Ignorant to the actions of others, but five steps ahead. Even removing the fourth wall, even for a spell, to directly address the audience in a manner which fails to detract from the atmosphere. An utterly sensational performance, commanding every ounce of the King’s stage.

What this entails is a trailing of focus once the Inspector’s duty is done. By no means dragging, there’s a minute or two which requires a tight shave towards the productions close. We’re still beckoned to invest, particularly by Chloe Orrock’s Sheila – the only guilty party who is willing to allow growth. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the pompously malicious Jeff Harmer’s Mr Birling. Brought to life with a superbly loathsome charm, Christine Kavanagh’s Mrs Birling reserves her poker face throughout, hysteric on a knife-edge, her eventual break is the height of melodic drama.

Unaware as we are that the Trump household was around in the 1910s, it’s remarkable how relevant a text can find itself some 60 years after its publication. A viper-like assault on self-preservation, it is quick, ferocious and instant. Nothing is left to chance; the message is quite clear. Priestley’s writing conveys a sense of justice, lacking in preach or jargon. As the family remains, their empire standing, if shaken, An Inspector Calls is as accessible in its theme as it was all those years ago. Troubling.

Lying beneath is a fledgeling five-star production, held back by the silliest of direction issues. It’s a production which respects the original text, offering a potential reason for drama teachers to watch for the twelfth time. A remarkable piece of theatre, An Inspector Calls is ounces away from perfection, fraying slightly in over-exaggerations, but it cannot be stressed – if you haven’t had the pleasure of sitting through Inspector Goole’s deductions, get yourself into the King’s theatre now.

Runnins until October 12th at King’s Theatre Edinburgh, Tickets available: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/an-inspector-calls

An Evening with Elaine C. Smith – Festival Theatre

Warm-up Act by Johnny Mac

There are a few things which capture the richness of Scottish culture, art and theatre quite like actress, comedian, and all-around character that is Elaine C. Smith. Scotland’s auntie, there’s no better way to spend an evening than in the company of an entertainer who is just that – family. From The Steamie right through to Two Doors Down, Smith has been keeping Scottish smiles going through it all, and she has no intentions of stopping.

Warming us up, the home-grown talents of Johnny Mac offer a comforting jovialness to the evening, but while his passion may lie in ‘silly’ jokes, there’s a silver tongue lashing around. There’s a timeless quality to Mac’s set, striving not to rely on easily punchable targets in politics or fame, instead, he continues a familial feel. These are the sort of gags you share with your cousins or granny when she’d clout you round the ear if you swore. His work with Smith in the panto makes him a fitting warm-up act, drawing fire at the various regions of Scotland with pantomime mirth.

The glittering main event, naturally gifted, Smith is quite at home on the stage, treating it like the front room, stopping for a chat, regaling us the odd anecdote of her career – wedging them around honest humour which provides more than simple laughter. A cosy evening, a chance not only for Smith to entertain the audience, but to express her thanks for their continuing support.

In this age of comedy, it takes a great deal for a comedian to carry off jokes which centre around the archaic notions of ‘men and women’, and yet, Smith is capable of keeping these alive. Not only this, current with insight on the changing dynamics of gender, Smith touches on her championing attitudes for woman across Scotland. Complete with a stirring rally cry for those of us in an industry where, things are never easy, especially for women, and that the illusion of being handed fame on a platter may seem tempting, but soon the meal grows cold.

Never forget – Smith has pipes. It’s no secret, star of the Susan Boyle musical I Dreamed a Dream, Smith has taken to the roles of Miss Hannigan, Betty in Fat Friends and a staple of Glasgow and Aberdeen’s pantomime history. This evening, however, any ideas of a comedic singer, with vaudeville roots are displaced as Smith delivers a tingling rendition of I Will Survive, alongside a special guest. Marvellous control, it takes a tremendous restraint to equalise tempo with an operatic performer – without straining to override the performance, Smith blends the harmonies.

Not only here for the comedy, we’re also after a right good gab. It wouldn’t be an evening with if we didn’t have a few insights into the woman behind the performances. Regrettably, rather than taking live questions from the audience, Smith is instead prompted with a selection of social media questions. The answers we receive are enlightening, enjoyable, but have an air of rehearsal. With such a wit, it’s a shame Smith isn’t able to cut loose and fire back into the crowd who no doubt have a few hidden gems among them.

Kindly, Elaine offers translations for the awfy posh folk of Edinburgh, the mark of a true Lady. It’s the smallest of punches like these, that offer a sense of playful welcoming. Smith is a Scottish woman through and through. West coast born, as one of the few Glaswegians who loves Edinburgh, Smith is a representative of Scotland. All of Scotland. No matter if you’re a Dundonian, Teuchter, Buddie, Fifer or an unfortunate Aberdonian, Elaine C. Smith is a treasure we all share.

An Evening with Elaine C. Smith was performed at The Festival Theatre, Edinburgh.