The Guid Sisters
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Until October 13;
At King’s Theatre, Glasgow
I Dreamed A Dream
Seen at Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
At King’s Theatre, Glasgow
The Incredible Adventures Of See Thru Sam
Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Touring until October 20
Reviewed by Mark Brown
In 1989 Michael Boyd (then director of Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, now outgoing director of the Royal Shakespeare Company) staged the British premiere of Les Belles-souers, by the leading dramatist of modern Québec, Michel Tremblay. Adapted into Scots-English by Scots-Canadian writer Martin Bowman and the late Scottish author Bill Findlay, and entitled The Guid Sisters, it was to have a profound impact on the Scottish theatre.
The play – which is, by turns, an uproarious and jet black comedy – opened to the kind of audience and critical acclaim which has rarely been seen since. The story of Germaine Lauzon (winner of a million savings stamps) and her stamp sticking party (14 female family and friends come round to her modest flat to assist in sticking the stamps into their books) resonated with both Scotland’s working-class experience and its irreverent sense of humour. Twenty-three years on, watching this scintillating revival at the Lyceum (directed by regular Tremblay collaborator, Québecois theatre maker Serge Denoncourt, and co-produced by the National Theatre of Scotland), it isn’t difficult to understand the play’s attraction.
The Québecois playwright writes in the working-class Montreal dialect known as joual (or “horse language”). Bowman and Findlay transposed it beautifully into an equally unconventional Scots demotic.
Tremblay’s comedy – in which the inevitable jealousy of Germaine’s good fortune combines explosively with malicious gossip, staunch Catholicism, personal crises and longstanding resentments – is reminiscent of the farces of Molière (another Francophone writer who is close to the Scottish theatrical heart) insomuch as it requires actors to play absurd-yet-recognisable characters with boldness, pace and precision.
These qualities are in abundance in an ensemble which is outstanding to a woman. Kathryn Howden (Germaine) and Karen Dunbar (Germaine’s sister Rose) are funny and furious forces of nature. Jo Cameron Brown’s pretentious elderly lady Lisette de Courval is hilariously “fur coat and nae knickers” (as the old saying goes), whilst Molly Innes’s hard-pressed carer Thérèse Dubuc (whose only respite comes through knocking out her incapacitated mother-in-law) is bleakly funny.
Denoncourt’s revival is a superb melange of comic levity and sudden poignancy. Painted across the stage in glorious colour, it has, surely, made The Guid Sisters a landmark play for another generation of Scottish theatregoers.
If a working-class woman’s dreams turn to ashes in Tremblay’s play, they are celebrated in some style in the Susan Boyle musical I Dreamed A Dream (co-authored by Alan McHugh and, the show’s star, Elaine C Smith). The piece takes us from the Britain’s Got Talent sensation’s difficult birth and childhood in West Lothian to the dangerously overwhelming demands of fame and an insatiable (and often cruel) mass media.
The show offers a gratifyingly sympathetic portrayal of a woman whose three-and-a-half years in the limelight have entailed not only mass acclaim for her remarkable singing voice, but also the media’s, by turns, vicious and patronising fixations on her physical appearance and her class background. From her schooldays (when her outsider status led to her suffering some pretty horrific bullying), through her tentative (and ill-fated) first romance, to her meteoric rise to stardom, Smith plays Boyle with a near-perfect combination of diffidence, humour and inner-resolve.
It is, in McHugh and Smith’s script, an extraordinary story told, in director Ed Curtis’s production, with a slick and straightforward simplicity. The show follows the popular stage musical formula assiduously. Unashamedly sentimental and given to comic caricature (Andy Gray’s deliberately obnoxious, luridly attired karaoke host, for instance), it takes its lead from Boyle’s own recordings in giving some unlikely subjects (Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan) the stage musical treatment.
The singing itself is variable. Smith’s not inconsiderable voice strains to the reach highest notes of the show’s title song. Seasoned musical theatre performer James Paterson (playing Boyle’s over-protective father) impresses mightily.
Needless to say, there is precious little here for those of us who consider Simon Cowell and his brand of gladiatorial television to be malignant forces in our culture. What there is, however, is a highly polished, technically proficient piece of musical theatre and an undeniably fine appearance, at the end of the show, by Susan Boyle herself.
If McHugh and Smith deliver on their audience’s expectations, Johnny McKnight’s latest play, The Incredible Adventures Of See Thru Sam, for his theatre company Random Accomplice, seems to be trying too hard to ingratiate itself with the teenagers who are its target audience. The central concept – Sam views his bereavement, first love and bullying as if it were a comic strip in which he and his parents are superheroes – makes more sense in marketing theory than it does in theatrical practice.
McKnight deals with some emotive issues with an admirable directness. However, his apparent desire to forge an association between his play and his young audience by replicating the more verboten aspects of playground vernacular and gesture seems counter-productive. So relentless is his use of swearing, abuse (including the insidious use of the word “gay” as a pejorative) and single-entendre that the predominant force in the auditorium becomes the nervous laughter of adolescents shocked to be sitting with their teachers while McKnight flaunts their taboos.
“It’s nothing they haven’t heard before”, goes the defence. That, however, isn’t the point. McKnight, presumably, set out to create an emotive comedy about teenage bereavement. What he has ended up with is a play which is most notable for its use of naughty words. And that, as any teacher will tell you, is neither big nor clever.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 30, 2012
© Mark Brown