First published in The Times, Friday August 14 2015
Stoirm Òg – the bilingual English-Gaelic theatre company founded by writer-performer Elspeth Turner – caused a modest splash at the fringe in 2012 with the gothic Hebridean family drama The Idiot at the Wall. Turner’s new work, inspired by the folklore and storytelling traditions of the north-east of Scotland, further reveals a company of significant range and ambition even if at times both the play and this production feel a little overstuffed.
SpectreTown, directed by Matthew Lenton – by day the artistic director of the Vanishing Point theatre company – weaves the courtship of Meg and Doddie (played by Turner and Mark Wood), itinerant farm workers in the rural Aberdeenshire of the late 19th century, with the travails of a group of charity-shop workers in the present day (Turner and Wood again, this time with Bridget McCann as the careworn proprietor).
Quite how these twin strands relate to one another is the play’s central puzzle, unlocked by the modern-day characters from a chest containing old clothes and a scratchy recording of disembodied reminiscences. As we soon learn, the ghosts that haunt the dusty curiosity shop are of the literal as well as the imagined variety.
Mark Wood, Bridget McCann & Elspeth Turner
As you would expect from Lenton, the production is rich in atmosphere, with the time switches dextrously handled by the cast and the lighting designer, Kai Fischer. Turner’s keen exploration of community, shifting gender roles and the importance of coming to terms with the past is further enriched by Matt Regan’s diverse live soundtrack and a generous, unapologetic use of the guttural Doric dialect.
Fans of the supernatural will have fun with such theatrics, but if the piece has a downside, it’s that the script and the staging at times feel as cluttered as the charity shop with the peripheral use of faces at windows and spooky sound effects occasionally impacting on narrative clarity. A couple of dramaturgical and presentational tweaks would make for a near-perfect piece of drama.