Assembly Checkpoint, Edinburgh – until 26 August 2019
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Thunderstruck by David Colvin at Assembly Checkpoint is a deeply felt and human tale, whose relationship with its source and inspiration nevertheless makes for some uncertain moments.
Much of the show’s publicity – and the title – makes mention of its evocation of modern piping innovator Gordon Duncan. Duncan can be fairly compared to Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix in the way he utterly transformed his instrument, its vocabulary and its whole tradition.
But, while Bird and Hendrix at least worked in areas where innovation was prized, Duncan’s impact on the tradition-bound world of competition piping was less welcome, with the principal of the College of Piping apparently declaring ‘if this is the future of piping, I’m taking up the fiddle’.
The problem is that this play is not really about Duncan’s life, early death and collection of ground-breaking compositions whose impact can be measured simply by listening to pipers busking on the Royal Mile. Instead it is the coming-of-age story of Colvin, a piper from Fife.
Duncan hardly features in the first half of the play, and in the second half is mainly important for his impact on a story of bullying, betrayal and growing up in the wilds of West Fife.
It isn’t necessarily Colvin’s fault that his story is marketed in such a way, and there is nothing wrong with this autobiographical piece. Colvin is an engaging and relaxed stage presence, and he and director Tom Freeman have fashioned a production that is likeable and informative.
The paradox that sees performers failing to convince when playing themselves is in evidence here; early on there is a struggle to create a coherent presence, but this is soon resolved as the story unfolds. There is little here that is new, and a desire to appeal to both piping aficionados and newcomers makes for some strange contrasts, but it is largely well done.
David Colvin and band. Pic: Sean Defrancesco
Some audience participation strikes an odd note, and the constant swearing (despite the attempts at justification) might worry some, but Colvin’s assured performance smooths it over.
There is a live band onstage who are playing as the audience file in, and it is a little disappointing that they are underused until the finale.
Improvements in sound techniques and balance during Duncan’s lifetime made it much easier for pipers to feature in smaller groups, with Duncan himself playing with the Tannahill Weavers, Ceolbeg and Wolfstone. It is the latter’s more four-square, rocky approach that is evoked here, and it would have been good to have had more. Indeed, there is less music here overall than you might expect.
Colvin’s story is interesting enough in itself, but does not always have the impetus to carry the production, while the story of Duncan is not always integrated satisfactorily into the tale. The result is not always completely convincing, but has enough impetus and emotional content to satisfy.
Running time 1 hour 15 minutes (no interval)
Assembly Checkpoint, 3 Bristo Place, EH1 1EY (Venue 322)
Wednesday 31 July –Monday 26August 2019
Daily (not Mon 12, 19) at 2.45 pm
Tickets and details: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/thunderstruck