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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Monday, September 26, 2011

Para Handy, theatre review

Published in the Guardian
Three stars

Imagine Last of the Summer Wine set on a Clyde puffer and you'll be close to the mild-mannered territory of Neil Munro's Para Handy stories. Written initially as a newspaper column in 1905, they are the whimsical tales of the eponymous Para Handy (a Gaelicisation of Peter Macfarlane), the skipper of the Vital Spark, on his voyages from the Inner Hebrides to Glasgow, shipping coal, herring and, on a humiliating day, sawdust.

It is ephemeral stuff, but also much loved, not least thanks to the three television adaptations, the most recent starring Gregor Fisher. It is in this spirit of affection that director John Bett has adapted the stories for this mainstage tour. The show tootles about on gentle waters, an episode here, an anecdote there, before alighting on the slow-burning romance between Jimmy Chisholm's genial Para Handy and Annie Grace's prim Mary Crawford, the baker's widow.

Typically, this romance seems more to do with Mary's cakes than any primal lust. In this world of minor misdeeds and gentle japes, the appeal of Para Handy and his crew is in their sexlessness. Despite their years, they are childlike innocents at large in an unthreatening world, a romantic vision of Highland naivety, sweet tempered, well meaning and mildly eccentric.

Endearing though all this is, Bett seems to understand it's scarcely substantial enough for a proper play. Consequently, he places equal emphasis on Robert Pettigrew's live score, a rousing compendium of sea shanties and folk songs, sung with gorgeous harmonies by musicians and actors alike. It often feels less like a play than a ceilidh with the odd sketch thrown in.

The approach maintains the breezy spirit of the originals while rooting the stories in their Highland home. It's utterly inessential, but performed with too much gusto to dislike.

© Mark Fisher 2011

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