Reviews: Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Tramway, & Single Spies, Pitlochry Festival Theatre (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE

Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner

Tramway, Glasgow

Until June 29

Single Spies

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 19

Reviewed by Mark Brown

As you enter Tramway’s famous main performance space you are confronted with an extraordinary exhibition which excavates a strangely forgotten, but highly ambitious, theatre project from the 1980s. It details the attempt by Paul Bright, the angry young man of Scottish theatre, to create a radical, six-part adaptation of James Hogg’s illustrious novel The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner.

The exhibition – which includes (in the midst of a staggering array of archive material) timeworn, but well preserved, posters and playbills – is deeply impressive in its detail and diversity. If only Bright were here to provide his own memories and insights. Sadly, as actor George Anton tells us (after we have been ushered from exhibition to performance), having disappeared in the late Eighties (before presenting the final part of the series), the dramatist died in Brussels three years ago.

Anton (who was a close friend of Bright, and the star, in the dual role of Calvinist fanatic Robert Wringhim and his sinister alter-ego Gil-Martin, of his Confessions) tells us the story of Bright’s opus with appropriately confessional honesty. As he unveils the history of the project – with the assistance of projected Super 8 film of segments of the shows and recorded interviews with leading Scottish theatre figures – one’s pleasure in the production is largely dependent on whether one believes the tale being told or concludes that (brilliantly convincing though the exhibition, in particular, is) director Stewart Laing has constructed an extremely sophisticated ruse.

If you come to the latter conclusion, you might find that the show quickly loses its sense of significance, and becomes merely a pleasurable, if sometimes slightly smug, entertainment. Even then, however, it is one sustained by Anton’s charismatic performance and some moments of sharp wit.

There could hardly be a greater contrast with Laing’s experiment in documentary theatre than Alan Bennett’s 1988 drama Single Spies, currently being staged as part of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s summer season. Loved (aren’t all his plays?) by the London criterati, this tedious drama about Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt (Cambridge graduates who were famously exposed as spies for the Soviet Union) underlines Bennett’s unrelenting capacity for projecting himself (Oxbridge-educated, gay, something of an outsider within the British establishment) into his own fictions. Indeed, except for the fact that Burgess (an Oxbridge-educated, gay outsider who escaped to Moscow) and Blunt (who remained in London, and subject to the blackmail of British intelligence) do not meet in this play, it could almost be a preparatory sketch for Bennett’s 2009 drama The Habit Of Art, a marginally more interesting piece in which an imagined meeting takes place between (Oxbridge-educated, gay, establishment outsider) WH Auden and Benjamin Britten (who was gay, but closeted within the establishment).

Act 1 of Single Spies tells us little more than that Burgess lived a miserable life in Moscow and continued to buy his suits from his Savile Row tailor. In act 2, Blunt (then head of the Courtauld Institute) finds himself inadvertently engaged, sitcom-style, in an (unsubtly metaphorical) conversation with the Queen on the subject of forgeries in art. Despite the best efforts of director Richard Baron’s production, which is handsomely designed and crisply acted, the play, like a rubber duck, floats gently on the surface with little, if anything, going on below the water level.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 23, 2013

© Mark Brown

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