We take theatre seriously in Scotland. Tuesday was the first night of the 63rd District Festival in the Kintyre Argyll District of the Western Division of the Scottish Community Drama Association, where local amateur dramatic groups are judged against each other for various trophies – the crown jewel being the eponymous Rex Trophy, won last year by Carradale Drama Club.
The event is held at Campbeltown Grammar School. As usual I walked and lost my way. The school is a big modern building nested among what passes for suburbia in a town of 5,000 – bungalows in a rat’s nest of curving streets that seem to go nowhere. Campbeltown is such a small place that I always think it’s possible to walk anywhere in minutes, but always get lost in these streets despite leaving in plenty of time. Thankfully, a passing motorist I flagged down was going there as well, and gave me a lift.
Carradale Drama Club kicked off the festival with The Beach Hut, by Mark Rees, a very tasty black comedy about a 40 year old marriage gone murderously sour. Perfect for Valentines Day, and I thought it was the best play of the evening. Vera and Geoff, a retired northern couple, have been coming to Scarborough for their holidays for the last 40 years (including the honymoon). Vera’s a snob, moving them from a beach hut near the promenade, when it all got a bit too common, to a hut at the furthest end of the beach. Much like a yuppie would move out to the suburbs as a sign of status.
Geoff’s a down to earth sort of bloke, who hates being parked out in the sticks where you can’t see the young women in bikinis without using binoculars. And he hates Vera, who cordially returns the compliment, each one hoarding their resentments and secrets like misers under the calm surface of a boring, seemingly conventional marriage. But today is when the kraken wakes.
A minimalist set of 3 beach hut facades in blinding primary colours, flanked by cardboard cutouts of a fat lady and a skinny man in bathing suits, faces cut out, so the characters can speak through them directly to the audience. And I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside as the intro and outro music.
It went downhill from there. Next up were Peninver Players, with Our James, by Roz Moruzzi. An underwhelming and contrived play, set in the late 1990s, about a Scottish woman who discovers that her mum gave birth to her via a sperm donor two years after her husband ran away with another man. Iris is very upset and wonders what to tell her 14 year old son, James, who is already in trouble at school. He’s 6’2″ tall with flame red hair, while she and his father are average height and dark-haired. Dang genes, jumping a generation.
So Iris goes respectively to a Citizens’ Advice Bureau, hospital records clerk, and a probation officer to ferret out her dad’s identity. All these offices serially occupy a corner of the stage. The problem is that there’s no dramatic tension in the plot, nor is the dialogue sharp enough to carry the play. The final revelation is like the punch line to a weak joke, turning as it does on an entirely expected symmetry between the behaviour of James and his grandfather. Granddad was tall, red-haired forger and so is James, who has has been making banknotes to help out his doting granny.
While Our James was underwhelming, I found Some Mother’s Son, by Mark Rees to be as dark as The Beach Hut, but with a stink of piety wafting from the stage. A production of Campbeltown’s own Accent Players, it’s set in a front line military hospital during the First World War. The protagonists are a group of nurses and two wounded soldiers. The Private is a young man, with his private parts scoured away by shrapnel, who is expected to die of his injuries. In the next bed is the Corporal, a grizzled army veteran of 35 years, in for a minor wound.
The Corporal tells the Private a secret. Just prior to being wounded, he slit a fellow-soldier’s throat, alleging the man had caused his wife to commit suicide by laying down on a railway line. An investigation is under way by the Captain, who will be visiting the hospital to ask them questions.
The Private takes it on himself to confess to the crime, knowing he will soon die. He tells a young nurse, a cheerful, pious lass, daughter of the kirk, insisting that she wait till he dies before telling the Captain. The Corporal finds out and, when the lad dies, awakens her suspicions by questioning her too closely about what she intends to do. He admits to the crime and, to make sure of compliance, threatens to cut her face if she doesn’t tell the Captain that the Private did it.
So Lucy, in fear for her life, repeats the lie. But on finding out the Private will be stripped of all honour and reputation, she tells the Captain the truth.
Here’s my problem with the piety angle. Lucy is like The Singing Nun (only Scottish and Protestant), unfailingly bright and cheerful, singing hymns with the soldiers to comfort them in pain, and cloyingly sweet. Fair enough, if that’s what floats your boat, but I was left drowning in a tide of bathos. True, her moral compass gains some nuance during the course of the play. Unfortunately, that’s not the whole of it.
The sainted Captain, sent to deliver justice, is portrayed as a kind of divinity. One of the other nurses is an old flame, and she is excited to be meeting him again. But she gets a homily from a senior nurse about devotion to duty, and this isn’t the time to be thinking about romance. It’s a sub-plot that goes no further. Pity. Perhaps the Captain wouldn’t have been such a cardboard character.
To be fair, Lucy is superbly balanced by the morally raddled Corporal, who has the acting chops (and the face) to bring something of the honest Iago to the role. He’s a far more interesting character, one quite capable of having murdered his wife, or driven her to suicide, all by himself.
But the apotheosis of piety occurs in the final scene, when there is a convocation of nurses and soldiers (including the scumbag Corporal), while the Captain delivers his sermon, sorry, announcement. Throughout the play there was a red medical cross illuminated on the wall at the back of centre stage, with a podium beneath it. Our gallant Captain delivers his humbug pronouncement from this podium, illuminated by the light of the cross. The Private’s reputation is excoriated for supposedly killing the wrong type of soldier, thus prompting Lucy to defy danger and declare she must tell the truth. Curtain falls.
Now this play was written by Mark Rees, author of the pitch-black, Beach Hut. Is he being ironic and and I’m just too thick to notice? There’s certainly an inherent irony in a play about a soldier killing a soldier when he’s supposed to be killing other soldiers. But it’s played completely straight. That said, the dramatic tension made it the most interesting play of the evening from the point of view of plot. My jury’s still out on this one.
In a day or two, I will review Wednesday’s plays. Bit of a backlog right now, and I should tackle the more time-sensitive Singing Detective and Roger & Val first.