Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until Saturday 21 April 2018
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Margaret Saves Scotland, the latest offering in the A Play, A Pie and A Pint season, marks the return of Val McDermid to the stage. Anyone expecting a taut and bloody crime thriller, however, should be warned that this is a low-key piece, wistful and almost wilfully slight.
Apparently, based on a true story of a friend of McDermid’s who died two years ago, the play features a girl called Margaret Holt from Yorkshire who falls in love with Scotland on a holiday in Galloway in the late 1950s. Determined to help ‘free Scotland from the English yoke’, she stows away on a lorry to Angus to do just that.
The story itself has charm, but no real dramatic impetus or momentum. Whether you find it involving would depend on your tolerance of couthie, Dr Finlay-meets-Heartbeat nostalgia, or of the kind of myths about Scotland we hoped had been killed years ago.
That a nine-year-old would get their views from a children’s history book is fair enough, but there is no sense that we are supposed to laugh at her misconceptions, nor is there any kind of corrective to them.
Presumably, the adult Margaret no longer believed that the Act of Union was caused by an English invasion of Scotland, or that the Young Pretender was a fighter for Scottish independence, but the only updating of this Ladybird book view of the world is a decidedly sentimental coda, complete with (literal) flagwaving.
This lack of rigour cannot simply be excused as being a tribute to a recently-deceased friend. In such febrile geopolitical times, we need more than the kind of celebration of Scottish inventive ingenuity that adorns countless teatowels. On top of this, the nebulous and twee evocations of bravery and national pride that occur here can easily be imagined in an English setting as a justification for Brexit.
Luckily, it is all done in such a cheery and frankly insubstantial way that it is not worth getting too het up about it. The piece is cleverly enough structured, as would be expected from such an accomplished writer.
Fans of McDermid’s work may find little to detain them, however, as this is as far away from a crime thriller as could be imagined. There are moments – when the law get involved with a runaway child – when some of the audience are apparently willing it to turn into a police procedural, but you would be more likely to spot her hand due to a throwaway reference to her beloved Chalet School books than from any of the subject matter.
There can be few quibbles about the staging or performances. Marilyn Imrie’s exemplary direction does give some theatrical heft to what is essentially a flimsy piece, while the cast are never less than committed. They also provide spirited musical accompaniment, even if the chosen songs are on the wrong side of over-familiar.
Toni Burgess is spirited and clever as Margaret, even overcoming the constant reminders of how unlike a nine-year-old she is. Simon Donaldson and Clare Waugh are thoroughly versatile in a variety of roles, with their depictions of Margaret’s parents coming the closest to genuine emotion.
In the end, it is all determinedly sugary, deliberately trading on the tartan-and-shortbread, Brigadoon version of Scotland that was once prevalent. It is difficult to get too worked up about it either way, and it is doubtful that it will linger long in the memory.