Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, 18 February 2011, and touring
WITH all the clamour around Black Watch – still on the road more than four years after its Edinburgh Fringe debut – it’s easy to forget it was not the first time playwright Gregory Burke had enjoyed a run-away hit. His debut in 2001, a cruel comedy set in a Fife factory where a heist goes horribly wrong, was the most talked about play on that year’s Fringe and catapulted him to national attention.
That play was Gagarin Way, which took its title from the street in the Fife mining village of Lumphinnans named after one of the heroes of the Soviet Union. Behind the riotous comedy, the first-time playwright had serious questions to ask about a community that had been repeatedly failed by economics. Exploited in the coal mines, dazzled by communism, now alienated by global capitalism, the people of Fife had yet to find a political credo that would give them control of their world.
Thus when Eddie and Gary decide to kidnap and murder an industrialist, their purpose is less than clear. For Gary, an old-school revolutionary communist, it is a chance to send out a message and challenge the system. For Eddie, his younger accomplice, it is more of a chance for some gratuitous violence; he has taught himself philosophy, economics and politics, but rejects it all, hating labels so much he won’t even call himself an anarchist.
In contrast, politics graduate Tom comes a cross as rather feeble in his moderate plea to choose the best of capitalism and socialism. One of the play’s comic ironies is that Frank, the man they kidnap, has a clearer understanding of the globalised system than any of them.
This is complex stuff and one of Burke’s extraordinary achievements is he makes Gagarin Way look first like a broad comedy then like a popular heist drama, almost without the audience noticing its deeper themes.
In Rapture Theatre’s production, opening in Burke’s Dunfermline heartland before a UK tour, including dates in Oban and on the Isle of Mull, the play gets off to a promising start as Jordan Young’s sparky Eddie runs intellectual rings around Finn Den Hertog’s nice-but-slow graduate Tom. Burke’s language is written with a very specific Fife intonation in mind and all the actors have a sharp feel for its inflections, which adds to the comic pace.
There are strong performances too from Jimmy Chisholm, as the well-versed old radical, and Dave Anderson, as the unexpectedly laid-back captive. But there is something about the pace of Michael Emans’ production that makes the rhythm lag as soon as the gags stop. He doesn’t build enough tension into the heist story to keep us on the edge of our seats. As a result, the political arguments seem less urgent and the play’s violent resolution less inevitable. It propels itself forward from the energy of the entertaining opening scenes, but leaves us a little deflated.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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