First published in The Times, Tuesday November 1 2016
You can almost pinpoint a person’s age by which screen version of the Para Handy tales they most fondly recall. The wily captain of the Vital Spark, the Clyde puffer immortalised in Neil Munro’s short stories, has been portrayed on television no less than three times since the 1950s. The most recent adaptation, which starred Gregor Fisher and Rikki Fulton, aired in the mid-Nineties, so we are probably due another remake.
Until that time comes around, fans will have to contend with this revival of John Bett’s stage version at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Liz Carruthers’s production sets sail on reassuringly placid waters and there are amiable performances from the seafaring leads: Keith Fleming as Para, Stephen Clyde as MacPhail, the crotchety engineer, Harry Ward as genial mate Dougie and Scott Gilmour as the endearingly innocent cook, Sunny Jim.
Pic: Douglas McBride
As befits the stories’ origins as occasional vignettes published in the Glasgow Evening News, the show’s opening act takes the form of a medley of anecdotes and reminiscences, glued together by musical interludes, composed by Robert Pettigrew and performed live by Jon Beales, the musical director, and members of the ensemble. Becky Minto’s set design handsomely recreates the bow of “the smertest boat in the tred” but there’s a pronounced lack of movement in Carruthers’s production that is at odds with the meandering trips down the west coast described by the leads.
Following the interval, the narrative comes to focus on the characters’ amorous adventures, notably the captain’s leisurely courtship of Mary Crawford (Clare Waugh), the baker’s widow whom he calls on every New Year when the boat is stationed at Campbelltown. Meanwhile, Sunny Jim meets and falls in love with Harriet (Kirsty McDuff), a shopkeeper’s daughter. The almost total absence of sexuality around these encounters feels somewhat quaint just as it is also strangely soothing. Even the looming horrors of the First World War are alluded to only in humorous asides.
While there is little in the way of crisis or conflict to break the gentle pacing, the show rarely feels monotonous. The likeable characterisations, the cheering music, comfortable, amusing episodes and lack of jeopardy come to act as a warm blanket, wrapping the audience up on deck for a couple of hours before we return to the choppier waters of the real world.