First published in The Times, Monday September 3 2018
There are moments during this production of Anne Downie’s oft-revived play about a family of Scottish travellers in the 1930s when the audience appears to be lost in a haze of nostalgia. Mentions of pearl fishing on Speyside, neep gathering in Angus and berry picking in Perthshire are met with appreciative murmurs. When the nine-strong ensemble performs Adam McNaughtan’s song, which gives the play its title, everyone sings along, word-perfect.
Downie’s 1989 play, based on the memoir by Betsy Whyte, is full of vivid invocations of a rural way of life that no longer exists but its mood is rarely sentimental. There are scenes of physical hardship, including the Townsley family’s toughing out the winter in a “Brechin fleapit”, as well as several brutal depictions of the mounting conflict between an embattled traveller culture and uncomprehending “scaldies” (householders) and “tobies” (the police).
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Although the action is rooted in the Thirties, with references to the abdication crisis and the coming war, the play’s portrayal of how mainstream society struggles to accommodate difference feels timelier than ever.
From its opening moments, Andrew Panton’s production for the Dundee Rep ensemble strikes an appealing balance, convincingly evoking both the rich culture and affinity with nature of the traveller lifestyle while acknowledging its darker challenges. Downie’s script retains the episodic structure of the book, following the Townsleys as they travel around Scotland in search of gainful employment, with their various adventures and encounters threaded together by the protagonist, Bessie, played here in a pair of beautifully complementary performances by Ann Louise Ross (as the narrator, reminiscing from the safety of old age), and as a youngster by the newcomer Chiara Sparkes.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Among the supporting cast, Gary Mackay and Beth Marshall are very moving as Bessie’s parents, the latter still connected to an older world of ritual and superstition that brings a powerful sense of the numinous to some of these scenes. Sinéad McKenna’s subtle lighting designs bring a sense of space and changing seasons to the simple, open set, designed by Kenneth MacLeod.
Woven into the dramatic scenes are stagings of various traditional songs, performed and played live by the nine-strong ensemble, though the final line of the encore of The Yellow on the Broom is graciously given over to the audience as the lights come down on the play’s action.