Scottish independence. “The choice is between warfare and welfare.”


I had the immense privilege of attending a discussion around the play “Union” at the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s Henry Irving Room  this afternoon.

I say privilege on more than one level because it was actually sold out and only my relationship with the theatre gave me the opportunity to buy a house ticket.  So thank you very much Lucy Vaughan for looking after me.

The line up was a titanic collection of historical forensic investigators; Tim Barrow, Union’s author, Mark Thomson, its director and Owen Dudley Edwards; Irish (turned Scots) historian, critic and, as it turns out, astounding raconteur.

I’m not going to review Union here as that’s not my place as a trustee of the Lyceum, but I am going to urge you, if you have any interest in the independence debate to see it because it adds an important layer of “poetic” texture to the debate and is an astonishing piece of work.

This is something that, to my mind, has been in short supply in the Independence debate so far, and something I have bemoaned on my professional blog .

But that was not the case today.

First off, Dudley Edwards’ referencing of the seminal work by Stephen Maxwell; Evidence Risk and The Wicked Issues – Arguing for Independence, was, for me, exciting, as it’s the writing that has most inspired me in this often tawdry mud-slinging debate.  It’s an important, intelligent, largely objective (despite his political background) read that is required if you want to have a view on this critically important era in our nationhood.

Mark Thomson made a brilliantly observed point that history, per se, is ‘bevelled’ before we even start deciphering it, because the voice of the common man has (until recently, thanks to the internet) been lost as a result of illiteracy and poverty.  History has largely been written from the point of view of the wealthy classes and that’s why it’s so important that Alan Ramsay (poet and apprentice wigmaker) is such a key character in Union.

But the message I want to share with you and invite discussion is Dudley Edwards’ answer to my question…

“If this play rose above the factual and reached a poetic truth (Mark Thomson) how can the current tit for tat Independence debate do the same?”

Dudley Edwards’ response was to say that, fundamentally, an ideological core has to emerge and hasn’t yet, but he suggested one that I felt touched an interesting and raw nerve.

Independence, as the quote in this title references, could be wrapped up in a singular thought.

Warfare or Welfare?  

Alex Salmond paints a picture of a Social Democratic state (more European than British) that eschews the fundamentally conservative politics of Southern England and that shares wealth and opportunity without resorting to outright socialism.  I like that.

He demonises Trident (the symbol of warfare and a hill of financial pain).  I like that.

He advocates our green economic potential through renewable energy R&D at the core of our economy.  I buy that.

And he seeks a nation where we look after the less fortunate.  A nation of welfare. A nation that creates opportunity for all (free University education, although I fear he has undermined vocational FE in this crusade).  So, I support that too.

No one, but no one, has captured that essence as well as Owen Dudley Edwards.

So, thank you sir.  You are a scholar and a gentleman.




My picks of the Fringe

It may seem  a little disingenuous for me to offer my thoughts on a Fringe when, like most mortals, holding down a day job makes  it hard to see as many shows as the legion of professional critics get to see – and not to mention the fact that I was effectively staging my own production (as Chairman of FCT who put on ten exhilarating performances of The Chess Game).

But, if I was to use complete objectiveness as my watchword for blogging you’d all be desperately dissapointed.  I’m sure my predilection for frankness makes for a more interesting read.

I read with delight an extended extract from Mark Kermode’s biography in the Observer earlier today and I realise his style is one that I aspire to.  His destruction of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour made me laugh out loud and lick my lips.

It was a Fringe dominated by shows from the collosus of Scottish new writing; The Traverse.  I saw no fewer than 6 of their shows but it should be pointed out that these threw up a wide mix of collaborators; not least my own beloved Lyceum who produced a high octane multi-character, three-hander called Wondrous Flitting which had many amusing moments and a very fine performance by Molly Inness in particular.

But their collaborations also included the NToS, Grid Iron and Blue Mouth Inc; all of which I enjoyed.

I’m desperately sorry that I missed Mission Drift which was, I suspect, the pick of the bunch but the following all inspired me;

The Strange Undoing of Prudentia Hart shows what a collossus of Scottish writing David Greig is; this site specific show, set in the  nearby Ghillie Dhu pub, had both Jeana and I in stitches and full of awe at a quite remarkeable ensemble performance.  Outstanding.

The second site specific show I saw was What Remains.  Set in the Anatomy School of Edinburgh University, and produced by Grid Iron it was the nearest one gets to outright horror on stage.  Driven remarkably by its writer, David Paul Jones, it begins with a highly intense (scary actually) twenty minute opening movement from a Concerto for piano written and performed by the aforementioned Jones.  It was electric.  What follows is the story of Jones’ descent into madness.  Part Bella Lugosi, part Anthony Hegarty, part Luis Bunuel, part Hammer House of Horror this show absolutely blew me away and at one point a certain plot devise pretty much made me let go of my bowels. Jones is simply wonderful as he acts sings and plays the piano in a one man tour de force.

My third Traverse pick is Dance Marathon.  Again Jeana and I attended and this was a joy from start to finish.  Following the recent trend, it too is site specific and the action took place in The Lyceum’s rehearsal studios in which the audience IS the cast and we dance for four hours (we went to a super long performance on the show’s last night).  Pouring with sweat at the denoument in which Jeana and I failed to be crowned King and Queen of the dancefloor in a dance, poetry, song and video smorgasbrod of excellent entertainment I was approached by Bluemouth’s producer who said she’d been watching me all night and declared me “Awesome and relentless”.  My proudest moment on this year’s Fringe.

Lastly, Marc Almond’s performance in Ten Plagues was awesome.  Very moving.

My other notable show this year was Berkoff’s Oedipus at The Pleasance which was brilliant.  The Greek Chorus of mainly old and middle aged men stole the show in a way choruses rarely do.  It was a little let down by the casting of Anita Dobson as Oedipus’ object of affection but it was not enough to stop tis being a top class show.

I saw FORK’s amusing Pink Noise but it fell short of completely convincing me that every sound emanating from this Finnish a Capella group was indeed man made.

All things considered though my personal Fringe First goes to Dance Marathon for the most invigorating (physically as much as intellectually) four hours I’ve spent in a theatre.

The Lyceum Youth Theatre; Summer on Stage

For the second year running I found myself at the opening night of Summer on Stage, an extraordinary theatrical venture that gives young people a truly great experience.  As it happens I was sat next to a lovely lady from Cairn Energy who was one of the founders of the whole thing and I have to say she was as blown away as I was.

The evening consisted of two productions, one for younger children (up to about 16 I’d say) and one for older youths.  The former was a charming tale called The Musicians in which a “shite” school orchestra arrived in Russia to perform as part of a cultural exchange, only to find that their instruments had been impounded at the airport because a spliff had been found in one of the cases.  The spliff had been secreted there because the doting flautists in the orchestra had hoped to use it medicinally to calm down the highly excitable conducter played excellently by Louis Plummer.

In the end the performance was mimed to Tchiakovsky’s 4th Symphony but inspired by the supportive (eventually) intervention of two hilarious stage hands/cleaners who stole the show (Keir Aitken and Samuel Adams).

The second performance, A Vampire Story, is a highly complex meeting of 19th Century vampirism with contemporary mental health issues and is quite stunning.  Both shows shared basically the same simple but highly effective set but in this one the set was used to meld two very different eras very effectively.  Although dark in content it is also hilarious in parts; it deals with the story of a teenage girl who clearly has become delusional and is creating a fantasy world of vampires as she seeks (with the help of her sister ) to escape the grasp of the authorities by constantly moving on.  On her journey she encounters another lost soul in the form of a home taught kid who is similarly trying to escape the attentions of his eccentric parents.  I can’t tell from the programme who played what parts but all of the principles were phenomenal and a special word has to go to the dotty teacher, Mint, played by Blair Grandison.  (The Home Economics teacher, Filet, who was played by Emma Mckenna was a class character part and I recognise the girl who played the part from previous Lyceum Youth performances – a real talent).

Director Steve Mann made a considerable impression on me with this show because the content was complex, the movement difficult and the pace very important.  All were delivered perfectly in a great technical set up so that what emerged was a highly professional production that replicated the sort of conditions that professional rep actors and technicians have to (and most certainly had to) work under;   short time scales to learn and perfect the the performances.  In this case A Vampire Story was created in under three weeks and The Musicians in under two.

As a kid, I’d have loved to have had this opportunity and so hats off to The Lyceum for making this happen and also to Cairn Energy for supporting it financially.

The Man Who had all the luck – The Royal Lyceum Theatre Company.


Written in 1940, Arthur Miller’s ‘other play’ apparently got the heave after only four Broadway performances and has never reached the heights of his big three; The Crucible, All my Son’s and Death of a Salesman. It disappeared from the theatrical circuit for over 50 years until its Broadway revival in 2000 and is being increasingly performed since then, which is a good thing because it is a very fine play and this production absolutely grabs it by the throat and powers its way through two hours of excellent drama.

It’s in production as I write for a movie release later this year.

The play is written in the style of a morality tale, but it does not preach and is not in fact really about morality at all, even though the pursuit of money is the main subject matter. At its heart lies the increasing guilt, verging on despair, of the central character, David Beeves, played to perfection by Philip Cumbus. His guilt stems not from anything that he has done wrong but because he is blessed with a Midas touch. For every one of his yings a close friend or family member suffers a balancing yang and this increasingly gets to him until it climaxes in his rejection of his newborn child – itself something of a miracle.

The entire cast assume Midwestern American accents throughout (aside from Austrian immigrant JB Feller played by Andrew Vincent) and I didn’t spot a single slip. Act one centres on the repair of a rich farmer’s automobile and when this remarkable beast is wheeled onto centre stage the audience gasped in unison. It really is a great moment.

I liked this a lot. The mood changes steadily from general merriment and optimism to full blown angst and the pacing of this change is crucial to the success of the play.

In these times of rabid consumerism the turmoil that Beeves puts himself through is a refreshing thought provoker.

Do we all take things too much for granted?

Will we see things differently 12 months from now once the crunch has bitten deeper?

Will we all be more aware of our blessings?

I think so.

A play for the times indeed then.

Here’s a sneak preview…

And it would appear the Guardian liked it too.

Something wicked this way comes by The national Theatre of Scotland and Catherine Wheels Theatre Company

I took my 14 year old daughter Ria to see this production at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh tonight and was hugely impressed.

It’s a highly complex story that lends itself more easily to celluloid than the stage but director Gill Robertson and designer Karen Tennent have done a quite remarkable job of staging the (possibly) unstageable.

The show involves incredible feats of lighting and video art (by Jonathan Charles – who I think I know as an ex FCT kid), great and atmospheric music, creepily accompanied by a pianist/accordionist – played in a most unusual manner – and Cellist (Robin Mason and David Paul Jones) and the highly unusual Aerial design as the dust witch flies across the stage .

The tale is interestingly morally and the performances are convincing across the boards; from a hard working and only eight strong cast. Although I have to say in a perfect world I’d much rather Will and Jim had actually been 14. Andrew Clark, as Mr Dark, steals the show as this typically grotesque type of role can, and often does.

Ray Bradbury’s story is quite affecting and deals with issues such as vanity, good versus evil and how we all deal with the ageing process.

The mostly young audience gasped, screamed, heckled and laughed.

Is that not what makes great theatre.

My daughter loved it. Result.