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FringeReview Scotland 2023


National Theatre of Scotland

Genre: Drama, LGBT, Musical Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock


Low Down

Davie Balfour lives next to a rock. His life resembles it in terms of excitement until, his faither dies. Then he gets tellt to go tae a place where his uncle sells him tae pirates, the pirates get turned over by Alan Breck Stewart and all hell, romantically speaking like, follows. Being cast as an outlaw, being ripped off by the future in laws and finding yourself are all in his pathway as he takes flight amongst the beauty of life as a man hunted by redcoats and desired for by a Jacobite. It being a bit of a rom com, spoiler alert, happily ever after is a possibility.


Oh, to be a National Theatre. The pressure there must be to take on the classics of the country and turn them into fodder for the tourists. And then you make the decision to be slightly more creative and what may follow is condemnation and disappointment as it was “nothing like the book”.
Recruiting to the cause two of the brightest in British theatre, with an Olivier tucked amongst their bookshelves is a piece of inspired genius. The approach taken to weave Mrs. Stevenson into the storyline adds a texture to the whole and gives it more to keep those of us who know the story intrigued. It may, though, confuse those who do not quite get the story and her part within it onstage.
Weaving in and out the action with Frances Mathilda Van Der Grift Osbourne Stevenson telling her tale drives the narration through allusion and parallel. The use of recognizable songs from a playlist of what we might now call standards rather than truly contemporary, also works and has due regards to its audience. The script is a highlight. It has imagined and reimagined this as a piece of theatre which showcases the imagination of its original author, the influences of the woman in his life and the joy of just being a damn good story.
But to tell the tale needs much more and an ensemble cast led by Kim Ismay as Frances, Malcolm Cumming as the dashing Alan Breck Stewart and Ryan J McKay as the hapless and then fully woke Davie Balfour works a treat. Hats off to Christina Gordon, Danielle Jam, Fatima Jawara, Grant O’Rourke, Karen Young, Isaac Savage – as a performing musical director, no less – and David Rankine – making a career out of Scottish icons, having been front and centre in Nan Shepherd with Firebrand. Having caught this at the beginning of the tour, what it does lack is a little sharpness and some of the interactions between the cast needs to settle more and become slicker.
It has been directed with vigour and it manages to drive the narrative and interweave some of the storyline with a more modern twist with great skill. But where it uses theatrical trickery it shines best – the opening to Act Two is brilliant. There you get the lack of set, the songs and the performances at their best – when they connect and draw us in with them.
The set does however more than function as a backdrop. It is an integral part of the whole, whether as the pirate ship or the scenery in which they have to hide and the projections which show us their journey works very well indeed. Again, the theatricality of it whether it be a hapless drummer being wheeled about or the backdrop to an Aladdin’s Cave/Den of Iniquity, it functions as the blend that brings us closer to the piece.
Of course, it delivers a modern twist to the tale as Alan gets his man, or does Davie… I had already had a conversation with a literate friend appalled that any liberties should be taken with the text and was wondering who would have the nerve to try and improve a classic. That’s the thing with a classic. It’s not about improving it; it’s about interrogating it to prove that it is exactly that – a classic. Moving any text to the stage must take on the stage and the format needs alteration. Here it has been done so with skill and shows just how good the original material may be. Whilst I may be disappointed that no Tunnock Caramel Wafers appeared in the making of this tale, anyone who will be offended by the book being adapted should go and support their local bookshop… or better still go and take a copy out of the local library, they could do with the support. For the rest of us we can ride the wave of the High Seas and take the adaption in our stride – I reckon Frances would approve.


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