First published in The Times, Saturday November 4 2017
A first glance at the staging for Peter Arnott’s new adaptation of Compton Mackenzie’s novel may lead some in the audience to wonder if they have inadvertently stumbled upon Brigadoon. Ken Harrison, the designer, has garlanded his set with tartan. There are glimpses of heather-clad hills in the background and a soundtrack of bagpipes playing faintly overhead. The whole scene provokes the same frisson of resistance one feels walking past shop windows filled with shortbread and tinned haggis on the Royal Mile.
The packaging may seem tailor-made for the tourists but there is plenty to delight the locals in Richard Baron’s lively production. Like Mackenzie’s novel, Arnott’s loving adaptation revels in sending up kitsch stereotypes while sneaking in some sharp home truths about Scotland’s culture and politics.
Pic: Douglas McBride
Mackenzie’s 1941 tale (which has nothing much to do with the popular television series of a few years back) feels like a forerunner of the American-in-Scotland sub-genre that includes everything from Brigadoon to Local Hero. Laird of all he surveys but cash-poor, clan chieftain Donald MacDonald of Glenbogle Castle (Benny Young) attempts to ingratiate himself with Chester Royde (Grant O’Rourke), an American millionaire on a tour of the highlands with his wife Carrie (Isobel McArthur) and sister Myrtle (Hannah Donaldson).
Ben Nevis (as MacDonald is also known) hopes to marry off his glaikit son Hector (Ali Watt) to Myrtle while persuading Chester to build one of his super-duper golf courses on the estate. The laird’s schemes begin to go awry when he offends a group of militant English hikers. Meanwhile, Carrie’s meeting with a dreamy kilted nationalist (James Rottger) further threatens his plans.
Arnott’s stated intention was to strip Mackenzie’s novel down to its essentials. Even so, he manages to cram numerous different strands into his adaptation, all linked together by Mark Elston’s wonderfully wry narrator, Prew.
Pic: Douglas McBride
The witty script includes digs at the entitlement of the landed gentry, the crass nouveau riche and romantic nationalists as well as references to Trump and kilted yoga. Baron adds to the sense of anarchy with a bustling, over-the-top staging that includes plenty of physical comedy, actors dressed as sheep, hares and stags and characterful puppets popping up in the background.
The director has assembled an impeccable, ten-strong cast, who enjoy themselves in their larger-than-life roles with energy and skilled comic timing. “Scotland’s about tradition or it’s nothing,” says Chester at one point. This enjoyable show lies squarely in the tradition of the best Scottish popular entertainment: it is an irresistible romp that also nails its satirical targets.