Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – until 24 September 2016
Reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Tuneful, hilarious and deeply moving, Dundee Rep’s revival of The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil is a triumph.
John McGrath’s epic mash-up of Brecht, variety, verbatim drama, community theatre and ceilidh tells the story of the Highlands from the Clearances to the discovery of North Sea Oil. It has had an almost unquantifiable influence on Scottish theatre since its first tour of Scotland in 1973. The original 7:84 Scotland production toured to a huge variety of smaller venues throughout the country, and its politically charged combination of humour, music and documentary theatre informs countless productions to this day.
Yet the play itself defied recent revival until this version, first seen in Dundee in 2015. There are many reasons for this – the feeling that the subject has dated, a suspicion that the partially devised nature of the piece makes it unsuitable for other companies, a lack of appetite for the inevitable comparisons – but this production overcomes all of these objections with ease.
While the original cast may have had a great deal of input into its content, there is still the unmistakable sign of McGrath’s guiding hand shaping and crafting the material. The apparently freewheeling style of the play disguises a tremendously clever structure, with serious and fun elements brilliantly combined. McGrath’s undoubted craft as a writer was matched by his desire to make theatre accessible, and an instinct about how this could be achieved.
The subject matter remains utterly relevant. Land ownership in Scotland is still concentrated in the hands of a remarkably small number of people, and often subject to convoluted offshore arrangements. The odd throwaway reference to Teddy Taylor will puzzle younger audience members, but most of it remains worryingly current, and very little has been cut from the original.
Stephen Bangs and Emily Winter. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Indeed, the updated material is notably less convincing. Some of it steers the debate towards the question of independence in a way that would need further exploration to be fully integrated with the original. The appearance of Donald Trump, while amusing, strikes an odd note, and the presence of ‘comedy Mexicans’ somewhat undermines the welcome removal of the ‘Red Indians’ that were still deemed acceptable in the 70s.
Any suggestion that the distinguished 1970s ensemble would cast a shadow over these performers is also quickly dissipated. The ten-strong ensemble all have chances to shine, and the experience in pantomime of Billy Mack and Jo Freer is obvious in the more extreme comedy; young Stephen Bangs clearly could have a future in the same line.
They are all equally effective in the more sombre moments, as is Irene Macdougall in a hugely impressive performance as the main narrator. Ewan Donald, Barrie Hunter and Emily Winter are thoroughly accomplished in a variety of roles.
The music is provided by the cast on a variety of instruments, with Alasdair Macrae directing things expertly. Macrae and Gaelic singer Calum MacDonald also chip in with clever cameo roles. The decision to foreground the female members of the cast – Freer, Winter, Macdougall and Christina Gordan – in much of the music, particularly the more affecting Gaelic songs, is one that pays off handsomely.
The cast of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Joe Douglas directs with wonderful energy. The Lyceum’s proscenium arch – and the separation between stage and audience that entails – has a definite effect on a production that is clearly intended to be more immersive, but this is overcome by some ingenious use of the auditorium itself.
Any theatrical devices, however, are purely at the service of the play and its connection with the audience. This is no period piece, but a vital example of politically engaged theatre whose message is as current as ever, all wrapped up in a great night out. The David Greig era at the Lyceum has thus already – with this and Wind Resistance – featured two unmissable shows, one in-house and one touring, with the season proper not even having started yet.
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes (including one interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX
Wednesday 14 – Saturday 24 September 2016
Evenings: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 7.30 pm
Matinees: Thursday 15, Saturday 17, Wednesday 21, Saturday 24 at 2.00 pm
Availability extremely limited with most performances sold out. Details from http://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/the-cheviot-the-stag-and-the-black-black-oil
Tour website: http://cheviottour.co.uk
The Bloomsbury edition of the script (left), edited with commentary and notes by Graeme MacDonald, is well worth having. Or you can get a kindle edition (right).
The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil on tour:
14 – 24 Sept
0131 248 4848
4 – 6 October
His Majesty’s Theatre
11 – 15 October
01463 234 234
18 – 22 October
0141 429 0022