Touring – reviewed at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Oor Wullie, the touring musical from Selladoor, Dundee Rep and DC Thomson has moments of comic brilliance. However, it never quite coheres into a wholly convincing story.
The spiky-haired, dungaree-clad bucket-perching scamp is probably even more of a Scottish icon than The Broons, his long-time neighbours (in both the Sunday Post and the fictional Auchenshoogle), who were successfully brought to the stage in 2016.
Wullie, however, would not immediately appear to present such possibilities for dramatisation. His adventures tend to be low-key, self-contained and short-lived. Furthermore, the world he inhabits is not so much dated as completely fictional at any time.
Nostalgia for a period that never took place has, of course, been shown by recent events to be a dangerous thing. Credit, then, to adaptors Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie of Noisemaker for coming up with a framing device that is both contemporary and timely. Young Wahid, a child of Pakistan-born Scots, who feels at once Scottish and an outsider, and is given an Oor Wullie annual to read.
Unfortunately, this device does not quite ring true. The portrait of prejudice is well done – notably when Irene McDougall, as one of a wonderfully contrasting pair of teachers, thoughtlessly tells someone born in Scotland how great Scots are at welcoming outsiders. The constraints of making a show suitable for all ages – which this undoubtedly is – mean it is a shade underpowered, however, while the ‘real life’ Scotland seems little different from the Auchenshoogle version.
Worst of all, it means that Wullie is more of a bit-part in his own story for much of the less-than-compelling first half. Things pick up after the interval, but the joins between the parts of the story mean that the narrative never really knits together.
There is a definite pantomime feeling, both for good and for ill. There are some sparkling comic turns, the songs are funny and well delivered (although sound problems mean that not all of the words can be caught) and it is breezy and cheery. However, the story is of decidedly secondary importance, with Wullie’s quest for his legendary bucket failing to carry proceedings, and inexplicable set-pieces such as a magic stinky bin lorry dominating.
Despite such problems with the material, there is so much humour and energy that it satisfies to a great extent. Martin Quinn has a hugely difficult task – everyone in Scotland has had their own version of Wullie inside their head for so long that any theatrical incarnation will have problems convincing. Quinn’s ebullience and charm are hugely successful, however, with Eklovey Kashyap’s diffident Wahid an effective and sympathetic foil.
Leanne Traynor is compelling as bully Basher, while Grant McIntyre, Dan Buckley, Bailey Newsome and Leah Byrne give Wullie’s familiar cohorts sparky life – although the broad-brush characterisations are occasionally puzzling, particularly in the case of McIntyre’s Wee Eck.
George Drennan’s narrator figure (‘mysteriously’ called Dudley) adds to the fun, but the stand-out performance is, unsurprisingly, from Ann Louise Ross. Ross as PC Murdoch is a casting decision that seems to come out of left field but works beautifully, and she gives the part a presence and odd gravitas that is lacking elsewhere, added to the best comic timing you are likely to see anywhere.
Leanne Traynor. Pic Dunee Rep
Andrew Panton’s direction verges on the breathless, which helps to sustain interest, and the production is pleasingly aware of its own absurdity, with the cheesier moments played with appropriate relish. Although some clever use is made of technology, it is the more homespun effects that work better. Kenneth Macleod’s design, meanwhile, is inventive without going over the top.
The production does threaten to outstay its welcome at times, and works better as a series of discrete moments rather than as a coherent musical, but its heart is undoubtedly in the right place and has enough to please fans of Oor Wullie – which is just about everybody.
Running time 2 hours 25 minutes (including one interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ.
Tue 28 January to Sat 1 February 2020
Evenings 7.30pm, Matinees Wed & Sat 2.30pm
Tickets and details: Book here.
Oor Wullie on tour 2020:
Tue 28 Jan – Sat 1 Feb 2020
0131 529 6000
Mon 3 – Sat 8 Feb 2020
Mon 10 – Sat 15 Feb 2020
01463 234 234
Wed 26 – Sat 29 Feb 2020
Tue 3 – Sat 7 Mar 2020
Mon 9 – Wed 11 Mar 2020