Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Long Gone Lonesome, National Theatre of Scotland review

Published in The Guardian.

Long Gone Lonesome

Tolbooth, Stirling
3 out of 5

Ever since it started in 2006, Vicky Featherstone's National Theatre of Scotland has sought to redefine theatre. The company launched with a string of site-specific events in Aberdeen flats and Stornoway shops – and is now staging a show that is more country-and-western hoolie than conventional play. On an extensive Highland tour, Duncan McLean's Long Gone Lonesome is a curious hybrid of music and theatre that recalls the ceilidh spirit of John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.

Where grander musical shows pay tribute to cultural giants such as Abba, this one is a homage to one of the most obscure. Thomas Fraser was a Shetland fisherman born in 1927 who spent his 50 years on the island of Burra where, even by the standards of that quiet corner, he was considered a loner. Convalescing from childhood polio, he fell in love with country music and, as soon as electricity reached the island, invested in a tape recorder on which he laid down hundreds of songs until his death in 1978. It would be another two decades before his captivating arrangements – more Jimmie Rodgers than Jimmy Shand – were discovered and released to the world.

Performing behind a reel-to-reel recorder with his Lone Star Swing Band, McLean promises to skip the "lilting laments" before launching into a rousing set of blues-tinged Americana standards that, with fiddle and slide guitar, make the connection between windswept island and lonesome prairie. It is genial more than funny, descriptive more than dramatic but, with its understated championing of art for art's sake, it is both a defiant riposte to the cult of celebrity and a yodelling hoedown in its own right.
© Mark Fisher 2009

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