Derek McLuckie was a contemporary of mine in the fabulous Paisley Writers’ Group of the 1990s. This was a weekly meeting of some of the most talented writers I’ve ever worked with, including Suhayl Saadi (a good friend whose “Psychoraag” is one of the most imaginative Scottish novels of the last 15 years), Graham Fulton (more of him later), Margaret Fulton Cook, Marion Arnott (A Silver Dagger winner) and Alasdair MacKinnon (one of the most elegant poets I’ve read).
Led by Agnes Owens, Gerrie Fellows, Kathryn Heyman and, finally, Ajay Close, it was an absolute hot-house of intense productivity. Work was torn apart, fought over, picked to pieces – and always came out the other end of that process at least twice as good. I’d never have written what I have written if it wasn’t for their influence, and I’ve never found a group like it since. Truly exciting times.
Derek appeared in the mid-90′s. He brought a different twist to the group perspective, which was pretty much embedded in a brutalist realism. Derek’s was a world of violence and sweat and sex that was unflinching and vivid. It was so out there, so in your face, and Derek’s dramatic core simply emphasised that. Gay orgies, casual sex followed by casual beatings, grubby rites of passage, industrial quantities of illegal substances: nothing was beyond him. I always thought I was an honest, frank writer: Derek took the biscuit, shoved it into his gob, chewed it up and spat it back out at you. He was a fantastically promising talent.
I haven’t seen him for over ten years, so it was with huge interest I accidentally discovered this performance at the Tron. It covers many of the issues he dealt with in his writing back then, developed into a powerhouse monologue that was his trademark style when I was on the same bill as him. Nowadays, every writer who can read from a sheet of paper advertises themselves as a “performer”: I’ve always considered myself a pretty good reader, and Derek, as a trained actor, just wiped the floor with me because he knows what performance is all about.
This is a terrific hallucinogenic roller-coaster ride, full of wild buzzing involving Greek myths, religious iconography and a fair dash of Barbie. The adolescent pull of glue is really well done, not so much an escape as a heightening. There are lots of real laughs that point to real truths, as well as blood in bucketfuls. Of course, though, it’s all about sex, the gay teen tortured by desire for his pals; it’s not the glue that woos the narrator away from the Evangelical religion of his family, it’s the boys.
That is the source of the greatest poignancy in the performance. A teenage pyjamaed fumbling with the one pal he truly loves is genuinely touching, while the other – more dangerous and full of testosterone – attempts to rape him using Germoline as a lubricant. The final minutes of the performance, as the narrator sits torn and bleeding in a bus shelter and invokes the spirit of Judy Garland as his saviour, are quite something.
Good to see Derek in fine form, as ever.
I’ve written about Edwin Morgan before, one of Scotland’s greatest writers, and one of humanity’s most humane men. This new play about his last days in a Glasgow nursing home is written by his friend and successor as Makar, Liz Lochead, herself a great poet and quite brilliant dramatist.
It centres on Morgan’s final days in a Glasgow care home and his relationship with his biographer / friend James McGonigal. As the physical and mental frailty take hold, Morgan is tortured by fears that he is losing the ability to write and by constant nightmares. In a life-affirming act of artistic defiance, McGonigal and Morgan shape and beat those terrible symptoms into a final triumphant collection of poetry, “Dreams and Other Nightmares.”
It’s a bit of a curate’s egg of a play (although it is described in the programme as a “new piece for theatre”, which suggests it isn’t meant to be looked at in any traditional sense). As Morgan’s past unravels before us, there are undeniably poignant moments: Morgan’s brief encounter on a bus with a half-drunk tough which promises so much but has to end after fifteen minutes because his ticket won’t take him past the next stop; watching “The Golden Shot” with his long-time lover, John Scott; the utterly bereft grief he suffers when he learns of Scott’s death a year after they had separated (again). Many of these moments are built around Morgan’s poetry (“Strawberries” features heavily in a scene with Scott), as are those moments when we glimpse the risk-taking Morgan, the man who trawled gay meeting places like Green’s Playhouse or Glasgow Green; “I couldn’t not take risks,” he says, even after the nightmare of the rape scene which sent shock waves through Scottish society when it was published forty years ago. You can see Morgan reading it to secondary students here: Glasgow Green.
However, it suffers a little from the same issues I noted in “Hit Me!” last year. The character of James speaks directly to the audience, revealing biographical details, dates of publication, etc. that are all interesting but, for me, rather mediate the dramatic experience for the audience: as such, we see Morgan through those eyes and not through our own. I wanted more of Morgan’s dreams and nightmares, wanted to hear more of his voice, wanted to become better acquainted with his “life force” that tops and tails the script, and I wanted him to speak directly to me.
But it’s a solid, interesting memorial by a fine dramatist. The production is thoughtful too - Morgan’s care home room looks more like a Soviet era prison cell – and the actors are well up to the job. Davie McKay as Morgan brings out an innocence and occasionally irritating vulnerability that no doubt characterised the poet at the end of his life, and there are glimpses of the tetchiness and ego that members of the public like me rarely saw. It’s also nice to see two actors I’ve worked with. Lewis Howden, who plays James, has a lovely, authoritative presence on both stage and film: he played Tulloch in the BBC Education drama I wrote on “The Cone Gatherers”, and I thought he captured the character’s humanity and solidity very well. You can see him in the programme here.
Great too to see Steven Duffy, who played a central role in “The Practicality of Magnolia”. Steven was terrific, and the on screen relationship he struck up with Sheila Hancock was utterly convincing. You can see him in a clip from it here. Steven and Sheila and the wonderful work of Clara Glynn and the crew created a film that was a hundred times better than I could ever have imagined: I owe them eternal thanks. Steven is also a terrific stage actor: I last saw him playing Biff in “Death of a Salesman”, a hugely difficult part he tackled with ease. In this play, he multi-tasks various characters – John Scott, Morgan’s final “muse” Mark Smith, various shady men, care home employees – and as such provides the texture necessary to hold the drama together, which means he has a tremendous influence. It’s no exaggeration to say that the audience watches him whenever he appears, which is evidence of his powerful stage presence.
A lovely way to spend an afternoon.
Gretchen Parlato has impeccable musical roots (her dad played bass on various Zappa albums) and a quiet, elegant confidence in her abilities. Quite rightly, too.
Her voice isn’t especially remarkable in terms of its range and power, I think, but it’s rich and warm and engaging. However, the real talent is in her hugely literate interpretative skills: she does a gorgeous version of “Holding Back the Years” (no, really, it’s great), and she knows how to use her voice as an instrumental part of the whole band. Consequently, the interplay between her and her musicians (led by the excellent pianist Taylor Eigsti, and not Mark Guiliana as I originally blogged; thanks to Karen Kennedy for the correction below) is seamless and rewarding, especially on very complex numbers like “Circling”.
She’s also capable of lovely playfulness, such as on bassist Alan Hampton’s composition “Still”, or when using her mouth percussively on an African-tinged arrangement of the Brazilian “Alô, Alô”, probably the highlight of the set because it’s so light and vivacious. When the accompaniment is stripped to the piano, as on “Me and You” and “How We Love”, she’s capable of eliciting a few shivers too.
The overriding impression is one of real class, and of a young woman completely in control of her domain. Good on the Glasgow Jazz Festival for booking a real gem.
Rule number one of theatre going: go. If you don’t, you might miss a gem
Of course, the flip side of that is that you may have to sift through a few pebbles first, and unfortunately this is an experience of that ilk. There’s no denying the power of the subject matter – volunteer nurses on the WW1 battlefield – but unfortunately the drama does little with its potentially fascinating characters.
First, there are too many storylines. Ailsa the matricidal working class girl, Millicent the bonking toff, Lily the mad widow; each in their own right might tell a story worthy of a play (my money would be on Lily’s) but together none are explored deeply enough for us to have any great empathy with them. This isn’t helped by them speaking in odd, fractured images, and occasionally the words are pretty much overegged. Talking of a gun pointed at her by the rather creepy John, Lily says:
“It’s just a piece of metal: it’s not a crying child. It doesn’t scare me the way a crying child scares me. That’s what you don’t know about us, the women out here, doing what we do in the middle of this war: the only thing that scares us is a dying child”
Stated once, the idea is neat and effective; twice is perhaps a little clumsy: three times, and I’m liable to say, “I get it already!” There are also some quite clumsy, gauche lines, such as
“I’ll build you a home… That way I can put love in the rafters.”
All in all, the dialogue comes across as somewhat obtuse – the characters rarely seem to really speak to each other – which has the unsettling effect of a play that is aiming for realism and hyper-realism at the same time in a stylistic tug of war.
The play also relies on more and more implausible images to create any sort of emotional engagement. I would love to have had some sympathy for Ailsa, but she goes apeshit so speedily we never get to know what she was like before the madness strikes, and all that is left is the sight of her, apron stained in gore, cuddling dead bodies and dragging a cart laden with them across the stage, her howling amplified and distorted to uncomfortable levels. If the effect is to create the impression of a demented Mother Courage, it’s a bit of a blunderbuss approach.
Abigail Docherty is obviously an up and coming playwright, with many theatre and film credits to her name. However, this play just didn’t work for me by a long way. It is based on the diaries of real women on the Front, and I can’t help feeling that if they had been allowed to tell their stories, it would have been much more engaging and poignant, without all the explosions and flashing lights and hysteria. It should have been an emotionally exhausting experience: in reality, it was a bit intellectually irritating.
A month of a total lack of culture thanks to heaps of marking ends with a visit to see a version of the Pullitzer-prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley. Recently made into a Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman film, the story of a power struggle and possible sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is obviously hugely topical, even though it is set in 1964. Father Flynn is accused of “interfering” with the first black boy at an exclusive private school by the overbearing Sister Aloysius, in the process ending the innocence of young Sister James.
It’s a cracker of a story, sure, but it doesn’t quite work for me. The vindictiveness of the elder nun seems to lack context, and the priest, faced with such a flimsy case against him, buckles too easily, accepting a promotion to move him away from the impending turmoil. As a result, the play finishes good half hour too early and with too many unanswered questions – which is perhaps why it’s called “Doubt”…
The set is gorgeous, utilising the Tron’s original stained glass windows to create the hushed interior of a church. The cast is adequate. Alison Peebles is suitably malicious as the school principal, looking like a malevolent Michelle Pfeiffer, but she stumbles with lines occasionally (one paragraph becomes unintelligible as she fights to make sense and make the cue), while Keith Fleming is a little too unctuous as the priest and Phyllis Livingston is given little to do despite having the potentially juicy part of the dilemma-ridden mother. Best of all is Sally Reid as the naive Sister James. She has the right face and manner of the ingenue teacher and nun, scared stiff by authority and willing to say anything to please either Sister Aloysius or Father Flynn. Her development into her own thinking entity as she realises the injustice that has been done is the most believable aspect of the play.
However, overall it’s a bit of a disappointment. Whether editing decisions have been made or whether the script really is that pat is beside the point: I left feeling short changed by a potentially rivetting story about potentially rivetting characters.