Reviews: In Time O’ Strife & Dark Road (Sunday Herald)

In Time O’ Strife, Pathhead Hall, Kirkcaldy, until October 12

Dark Road, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until October 19

Reviewed by Mark Brown


If some commentators are to be believed, class warfare has returned to Britain with the political battle between Red Ed and Learn Or Earn Dave.

It is timely, therefore, that the National Theatre of Scotland’s latest production – a new adaptation, by director Graham McLaren, of Joe Corrie’s 1926 miners’ strike drama In Time O’ Strife – should remind us that the sharp edge of class conflict tends to be felt not in party conferences but in working-class communities.

Indeed, McLaren – who staged a fine production of Men Should Weep, Ena Lamont Stewart’s 1947 play about life in the Glasgow slums in the 1930s, for the NTS two years ago – seems to be on something of a mission where the drama of the Scottish working class is concerned. Aware, no doubt, of just how easily presentations of such works can descend into a kind of perverse nostalgia, the director has re-envisioned In Time O’ Strife as a play-cum-electronic ceilidh, complete with television footage of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike.

Performed in Kirkcaldy’s Pathhead Hall (the perfect venue, having, as it does, the aura – and the decor – of a miners’ welfare club), the drama alights upon numerous conflicts: between miners and cops; flagging men and resolute women; strikers and reviled strike-breakers. It is, without question, a heartfelt cry of rage and a fascinating historical document.

What it is not, however, is a well-crafted work of theatre. The dialogue, despite both the play’s purported realism and the best efforts of a committed (if uneven) cast, is often stilted, wooden and overshadowed by a political discourse which would come more comfortably from atop a soapbox than a stage. The music and song add little to the piece, and the choreography is lumpy. Ultimately, despite McLaren’s laudable efforts to place the play in a more recent history, it crashes in an overloaded conclusion.

If Corrie’s piece lacks theatrical finesse, it looks like the work of Shakespeare compared with Dark Road, Ian Rankin’s debut play (co-written with the Lyceum’s artistic director, Mark Thomson). The story of the attempt by Chief Superintendent Isobel McArthur (played by the superb Maureen Beattie) to resolve her doubts over her biggest case (the imprisoning, 25 years ago, of a sinister hotel orderly for the murder of four young women), it is an overwritten, appallingly constructed, frankly embarrassing mish-mash.

We’ve been here before, with a leading Scottish novelist attempting the treacherous journey from prose fiction to theatre writing. Seven years ago, Ali Smith had her fingers burnt when she wrote her first (and, surely, last) play, The Seer. If only Rankin had learned from her experience.

It’s hard to know what one dislikes most about this piece. The improbable coincidence of McArthur’s unofficial investigations with a parallel project by her spitefully resentful daughter is a contender. Likewise the silly shifts between reality and sub-Grimm Brothers imagination (replete with daft animal mask). For my money, however, the real crowning turd on the theatrical dunghill comes in the over-stuffed conclusion. Suddenly, a dreary, lumbering, repetitive drama moves into accelerated implausibility, with the convict exerting a ludicrous power in the outside world and hitherto intelligent characters doing things so stupid that not even the stress of a crisis situation could explain them.

Little wonder, then, that neither designer Francis O’Connor – whose revolving set looks, inevitably, cluttered and cumbersome – nor a strong cast can prevent the murder of the audience’s hopes and expectations.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 6, 2013

© Mark Brown


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