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FringeReview Scotland 2013

Callum’s Road

Communicado/National Theatre of Scotland

Genre: Drama

Venue: Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh,


Low Down

Callum McLeod took 20 years to build a road on Raasay. He never gave up, nor sat down whilst he relentlessly attempted to keep his people from leaving; not by building barriers but by laying the foundations for exit and entry to his world. Told through song, the words of his wife, a narrator, a neighbour and his son as well as himself this is a lament in the style of traditional tales that has purpose in the seemingly endless trials of a purposeless task. 


Callum is indignant. The Council have stopped their road building two miles from his house and those of 100 other inhabitants on the island. As the local postie he is well aware of the need for good roads and communication on the island so he sets out to build one; a road that is. First of all he meets and then weds the new school teacher. They then have a child who befriends a local boy before being sent away thanks to the council educational policy of providing secondary education in the bigger island next door. A man of few words but greater action his relationship with his daughter disintegrates. She decides she wants better for herself than Raasay as she witnesses her friend’s family leave the island. Then she suffers being in Portree High School alone and remote from her family. Her decision to go to Dunfermline hammers more misery home for Callum and we see the end of his time on the island partly through the daughter’s friend returning to Raasay to sort his family’s croft, accompanied by his son. The son drives some of the story along with a narrator that builds unapologetic Gaelic and Scots tongues wagging alongside English to provide a complex narrative that explores the issues of abandonment and belonging within a 21st Century Scotland.

Overall the writing was strong with the use of Gaelic poignant and lyrical. Episodic in nature with flash backs intertwined within the narrative the story wound you round its little finger. Like all good storytelling the music and the song were integral allowing for texture and poetry in amongst the abandonment of a way of life; an island. The story was lifted by such beautiful song and whilst never falling into the elegiac it gave you a sense of the people we should celebrate, not pity, support and not condemn for such folly.

Communicado has always been a company for whom I have had a strong sense of affinity. They have provided a backdrop against which strongly local yet global themes have played. Their collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland is logical for a company with such strong artistic values. What therefore was surprising were the two or three occasions in which actors jumped in front of their cues. They may well have had the foresight to see the fire alarm coming that cleared the theatre at the end of the show but they needn’t have worried as the theatre showed no signs of panic; nor should they have.

The strength in the staging was the use of a backdrop projected with interaction that translated the Gaelic as well as provided a snow storm and the shadows of a determined man that was in front of us onstage. The set was practical with blocks doubling as stones, cars and hiding places in the snow. In all cases it was both convincing and an effective backdrop for the drama.

Apart from the slip between actors this was a performance with high production values that befits the two companies that have come together to perform. It was polished and well directed but then again Gerry Mulgrew is a director of consummate skill that this feels like the norm.

The story of our hinterlands in Scotland is always worth the telling because within our country we have tellers that relate stories of such unparalleled imagination we can but think they are fiction; but they are real. The vast size of Scotland means that we have traditions and legends in every nook and cranny crying for voice. If you cannot find a story worth the listening in Falkirk, keep travelling in any direction, there is one close by. Callum’s Road though is less about the road than it is about the man; his effect upon the people around him as well as his like for Cormorant.

We come away with a view as to whether he was a stubborn man who failed to see the inevitable or a man unwilling to accept the inevitable without first proving his worth. There are clear messages for us and where we are right now – particularly when you consider he took 20 years to finish the road and never gave up. It is hard to imagine what else would keep one person going for 20 years now; unless HALO21 is darn hard… Singlehandedly this man created a communication route on an island that was designed to connect when the island was disconnecting its people.

This was a great piece to see and the audience’s enjoyment was obvious though their desire for a second bow from the cast which was curtailed by a fire alarm. I was, however, left wondering how his relationship with the Socialists in the Council that he despised had manifested itself over the years – was there opposition to the road, why did they eventually agree to tarmac it, why was he so anti socialist? I was left without answers and I really felt that this element of the story, which may have been less dramatic, could have been better explored. It was a great piece of theatre for a summer’s evening with an uplifting message though debate may rage over whether it was worth his pick, shovel and wheelbarrow (and the occasional stick of dynamite).