Grain In The Blood
Seen at Tron, Glasgow;
Transferring to Traverse, Edinburgh, November 1-12
Dr Johnson Goes To Scotland
Seen at Oran Mor, Glasgow;
Transferring to Traverse, Edinburgh, November 1-5
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Few Scottish dramatists have as varied an output as Rob Drummond. He first came to prominence with pieces, such as stage magic show Bullet Catch and the self-explanatory Wrestling, that were built around his own persona as a performer.
Since then there have been more conventional plays, most notably celebrity paedophile drama Quiz Show and his currently touring stage version of much-loved cartoon strip The Broons.
His latest play, Grain In The Blood, (a co-production for the Tron, Glasgow and the Traverse, Edinburgh) is, perhaps, his boldest departure, not in form, but in narrative. Set in the isolated rural cottage of veterinary surgeon Sophia, the drama centres upon the dangerously poor health of Sophia’s young granddaughter Autumn.
Maximum security prisoner Isaac (Sophia’s son) is on a brief home visit, complete with Burt, his private security firm chaperone. Sophia’s hope is that Isaac will agree to donate a life-saving kidney to the little girl.
Into this emotive mix Drummond throws the appalling impact of Isaac’s crime upon Violet, who is now Sophia and Autumn’s housemate. More importantly, the playwright also introduces “The Verses”, ominous rhymes that connect to the rites and rituals of an ancient, pagan religion.
This curious faith, in which fertility and death are bound together with disquieting certainty, promises a magical realist dimension to the play. If only Drummond had the self-confidence to take it to its logical conclusion.
The play runs to just an-hour-and-a-half, and, beyond The Verses themselves and some allusions to the fetishised object known as The Grain Dolly, it never explores the religion in any depth. Where one might have hoped for a journey into the psychic world of the faith, we are left, instead, wondering exactly how such a seemingly insubstantial belief system could have motivated Isaac to carry out such an atrocious criminal act.
Drummond’s shortcut through the play’s pagan dimension diverts us from the very element that offers the greatest atmospheric possibilities. His increasingly histrionic weaponisation of the scenario starts to make the piece look like a Scottish equivalent of a Brazilian telenovela.
All of which creates a frustrating sense that both play and director Orla O’Loughlin’s somewhat laboured production have missed an opportunity. The piece enjoys some fine acting (not least Blythe Duff’s frighteningly matter-of-fact Sophia and John Michie’s affectingly vulnerable Burt); even if designer Fred Meller’s set is slightly cumbersome.
There is some memorable writing here, particularly in the tremendously witty closing line, but it is not, sadly, enough to save the drama from its own shortcomings.
No such concerns with Dr Johnson Goes To Scotland, James Runcie’s little bio-drama for A Play, A Pie And A Pint at the Oran Mor. The piece follows the decidedly Scotophobic Johnson and his Scottish friend James Boswell on their famous Caledonian tour in the autumn of 1773.
Interweaving short passages of explanatory narration (provided by Boswell, played splendidly by Simon Donaldson) with brilliantly imagined episodes from the tour, it is a wonderfully engaging 50-minutes of theatre.
Runcie puts a high premium on comedy. Johnson’s loud and verbose speaking of English to a Highland woman who knows only Gaelic is comical. His badly misconstrued efforts to mime his request for a bed are hilarious.
The beauty of the piece that, as Johnson comes to know Scotland, and to soften in his attitudes towards it, we feel transported, not only around the country, but also back in time. Johnson and Boswell’s conversation about the many Scots words for rain, for instance, reconnects us with a time when Scottish people didn’t need a glossary to read the poems of Robert Burns.
When Johnson is educated in the efforts by the young British state to suppress the Highland dress, there is subtle, but powerful, commentary on the Clearances, which were, in 1773, in their relative infancy. The same is true of Johnson’s painful observation of the lack of land ownership by the people who lived and worked on it.
It is much to the credit of Runcie, director Marilyn Imrie and her excellent, four-strong cast, that such political and historical points emerge, not as polemic, but fluidly, from within a compelling piece of theatre. The play is about as likely to engage in a finger-wagging diatribe as Johnson is to speak without self-aggrandisement or pretension.
The production is blessed with a simple-yet-versatile set, lovely, live fiddle playing (by Morna Young) and moments of Gaelic song (from Young and the excellent Gerda Stevenson). The strongest element, however, is its central performance.
Lewis Howden is not the first Scot to play the ultra-English Johnson (Robbie Coltrane did so memorably in the BBC series Blackadder the Third). However, Howden plays the London man of letters with an absorbing combination of absurd pomposity, intellectual curiosity and, in a visit to a school that is pioneering sign language, genuine emotional engagement.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 30, 2016
© Mark Brown