Edinburgh Fringe 2011
The 44 Scotland Street world of Alexander McCall-Smith brought successfully to the stage.
In writing this review I shall have to watch myself very carefully, even see past myself. This review will really have to be two reviews. Firstly it’s a review of a stage version of a book many people have read, indeed, millions have probably read. So I’ll be reviewing a piece of theatre for an audience of in-the-know fans. How does it work as a transfer from book to stage ?
Secondly there are those who won’t know the 44 Scotland Street series of books and will simply be seeing this as a theatre production in its own right. In the second instance, the play is a bit overloaded with characters without enough exposition. It’s hard to pick up so quickly. For the fans it is a delightful transposition, an enjoyable self-indulgence. For non- readers of the book it is rather episodic and not quite a well rounded play. Bertie is the narrator who provides help here, and that enriches the tale but doesn’t quite tie it all together.
44 Scotland Street has lit up readers of the Scotsman and the resulting novels for many a year. Alexander McCall-Smith has a way with words, a way with gentle yet powerful and penetrating observation of life and the human condition, a way with non-cruel humour, and a way with storytelling.
So what of the play of the book? This production is staged in the round, with audience on pink stools in a ring where action takes place both inside the circle and behind, outside of the ring’s perimeter.
The Bertie Project – the term representing the sum of unneeded and unasked for interventions and intrusions by controlling mother Irene in poor Bertie’s life, is brought to vivid life on the stage at C Studio 2a.
Irene Pollock, Angus Lordie, Cyril the nipping dog, Bertie himself and a range of other characters figure in a story that captures the mood and fun of the original. Indeed, without delay, we plunge in from the first moment.
Do you have to know the books to enjoy the play?
Some of the episodic scenes rely too much on a payoff punchline sometimes giving the production a comedy sketch feel or even a bit of a soapish feel.
Considering these two different audiences (And my own bias as sitting squarely in the first camp as a fan and reader of the books) I’m led to believing that the apparent weakness of this piece may actually be its unique strength, namely, the skillful and unashamed staging of a kind of drama tapestry, a series of witty, wisdom-filled and thoroughly interesting, sometimes touching connected glimpses into a series of lives that reflect aspects of our own, making use of drama, comedy and images to create a new kind of experience for an audience. But wait a minute – isn’t that exactly what the author did for us in his original column? So, what we have here is neither just an attempt to recreate a book, nor an attempt to re-version that book as a play in its own right; instead, an attempt, and I believe a fairly successful attempt, to capture the true essence of human brings connected by varying degrees. So here we have episodes and images, moments and stories that we all experience as social animals, as frail human beings. I’d say it is brought with much success to the stage with strong performances from everyone in the cast.
It’s all very well staged in the space, is never less than watchable, and the acting is uniformly top drawer. The spirit and mood of the original book shine through. As a fan of the books I am more than satisfied. As a non-reader, it’s a highly engaging if a bit ramshackle play, full of entertaining and witty episodes and intriguing characters all united by the place they call home – Edinburgh.
And this staging adds things that weren’t there before in the books. With Bertie as narrator, sharing is deepest wishes, we really experience Bertie from inside out. And that’s a nice extra.
So overall, you’ll get different things from this depending on your orientation towards it. But it’s never less than very, very good.