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FringeReview Scotland 2024

Crown of Straw


Genre: Biographical Drama, New Writing

Venue: Biggar Corn Exchange


Low Down

In an asylum, Robert Fergusson lies, having been put there by his own mother. He is forlorn and desperate. The scene between the mother and the doctor which reaches this decision is taken, not in haste, but in regret as Fergusson is in trouble, but is somewhat a scrieving genius. With flashback and returning to the scene of his incarceration, we are taken back to his childhood, schooling in Dundee and university education at St Andrews. What emerges is a man who saw creative opportunities in all that he witnessed and made theatre and words dance alive in the mou o those that spake them.


This was a rehearsed reading of a piece that is ripe for development and, following the tradition of the company, Brawclan, has the lingua o wur nature at its heart and the community of Lanarkshire singing its praises. And so, we have a Scots language piece delivered with community actors, student thespians and professionals within their company adding an air of savoir faire. It works exceedingly well. But its subject matter is a man, who we have culturally forgotten: Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns’ “elder brother in the Muse”.

There is a statue on the Royal Mile of a figure in haste, from a time long past – the late 18th century – forgotten, neglected and admired by those who know. Unfortunately, those who know number few and those who don’t, many. It is Fergusson, poet, free spirit and raconteur who graced the pages and the society of Auld Reekie – Edinburgh. He looks like he is in a hurry and much of his life was driven. Driven by the demons in his head led to moments of external madness, with internal turmoil. Eventually his demise was as absurd as our inability to remember him fondly – he fell down some stairs. But one who recognized him was Robert Burns, and credit for Burn’s rise is often given as a consequence of Ferguson’s work. Not enough, but again those who know, know.

But those who don’t know are given the opportunity here to learn. The script manages to draw the essence of the man and give us his mischief and torment in equal measure. Playwright, Martin Travers will not require me to say that there are elements of exposition which could do with being drawn out more dramatically, but what they did do was to give the audience a flavour of the story and background which is relatively unknown. Here they worked, in a full production they might struggle.

The strengths are many in the reading, not least the words but also the performances. Some may have been slightly under rehearsed, but they had gusto and a commitment.  Blending the young, community and the profession can often see splits and divisions evident onstage but here there are few missed connections and faltering vocal steps.

It was freely directed with a liberty that matched the subject matter. Scenes that were performed, though encumbered by a scrip in hand, had the cadence of care which comes from a group of professionals who are truly invested, not just about the tale but also how it is communicated. It is, in many ways, this which makes Crown of Straw and Brawclan out.

As I sat watching the story, a tragedy, of man who is not celebrated in his own country in the way that others are, I was struck by the nature of what I was witnessing. In the not too distant past, a much larger, national organisation produced a piece of decent theatre around a connection between Aberdeenshire and a classic English text. Whilst others might think that exploiting that connection with a classic to Scotland is worthy, there is a worthlessness, by default of ignoring a giant muse of Scottish literature. Thought welcome it is, to see this in the intimacy of a small hall in Lanarkshire, it ought to have a production touring throughout the country.

Technically, though rehearsed reading it was, there was evidence of theatrical structure with functional scenery and necessary lighting whilst the audio track was more than what it ought to be. The music and lilting melodies carried emotion with them.

It was the sangs… Here you could understand why it was that Fergusson was seen as Burns’ muse, by Burns himself, no less. And who are we to argue? Vibrant, beautiful and with tremendous joy, this was a celebration which tugged at more than your heart strings. It tugged not like a Scotland fan in mid Cologne but as a celebration of who we are and what we can bring to all others. For that reason, this deserves a full treatment, a sound development which takes it from the table reading, to the stage. Brawclan may try to keep it in Lanarkshire, but this is a story we should all have, and Brawclan are best placed tae tell it.


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