Takin’ Over The Asylum
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, until March 9;
transferring to Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh,
March 13 to April 6
Seen at Heart of Hawick, run ended;
touring until March 16
Reviewed by Mark Brown
It’s almost 20 years since Donna Franceschild’s award-winning six part TV series Takin’ Over The Asylum first hit the nation’s screens. Starring Ken Stott and a young David Tennant – as, respectively, world weary hospital radio DJ Eddie McKenna and his manic in-patient sidekick Campbell Bain – the travails of the residents of St Jude’s mental hospital in Glasgow became a hit throughout the UK.
Fast forward to 2013, and Franceschild has adapted her TV show into a smartly structured, two-hour stage play. Directed by Mark Thomson (and co-produced by his Lyceum company and the Citizens), the drama catapults Eddie (Iain Robertson), Campbell (Brian Vernel) and their soul music show into the 21st-century.
Whilst fans of the TV series will recognise the play’s careful balance between poignant pathos and pointed comedy, the relocation in time changes the drama significantly. Genius in-patient Fergus is now an IT whizz who can stream Eddie’s threatened radio station on the internet. Raising awareness and funds for the campaign to save the station are now facilitated by 3G phones. Suddenly, the patients at St Jude’s are communicating, not just with a small corner of Glasgow, but with the entire world outside.
Such a shift could have destabilised the play, but Franceschild has used modern technology to up the stakes and make the campaign on the ward all the more dramatic. It’s a clever trick, which is matched by universally strong acting, from Caroline Paterson’s obsessive compulsive Rosalie to Martin McCormick’s boorish nursing assistant, Stuart. Robertson’s Eddie is perfectly balanced between slouching human frailty and underlying decency, whilst young Vernel (still in training at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) rises to the challenge with great energy and emotional intelligence.
There’s intelligence of a different (military and authorial) kind in White Rose, Peter Arnott’s well-researched 1985 play about the great World War II Red Air Force fighter pilot Lily Litvak. The latest production by Borders-based theatre company Firebrand, this three-hander explores Litvak’s “two wars”; one against the Luftwaffe over Stalingrad, the other against the Stalinist misogyny which had, as director Richard Baron writes astutely in his programme notes, effectively replaced the drive towards sexual equality ushered in by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
A sometimes awkward combination of dramatic dialogue and narration, the piece often feels a little static. However, the story – in which Litvak successfully downs a series of Nazi planes, whilst taking a fellow pilot, Alexei Solomatin, as her lover – does hold the attention.
Lesley Harcourt’s Litvak is composed convincingly of dignity, courage and defiance. Robert Jack captures something of the dissolute cynicism of Solomatin, even if he has a tendency to be too boyish at times. Meanwhile, Alison O’Donnell gives a strong performance as Ina (the pilot infuriated by being grounded as an engineer), although Arnott’s sometimes poetic script topples over (intentionally but, nevertheless, irritatingly) into whining excess in Ina’s final, rambling complaint.
Played on Edward Lipscomb’s simple set (a Soviet propaganda poster flanked by walls of lockers), White Rose tells a tale which deserves to be retold, even if the play is somewhat less accomplished on the stage than Lily Litvak was in the air.
For White Rose tour dates, visit: http://www.firebrandtheatre.co.uk
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 24, 2013
© Mark Brown