First published in The Times, Tuesday February 19 2019
Tom Johnston is not exactly a household name — maybe not even in the households of aficionados of Scottish politics. A minister in Ramsay MacDonald’s coalition government of 1929-1935, and initially associated with the radical left-wing of the Labour Party, Johnston would go on to serve as secretary of state for Scotland in Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet.
Clearly, there is enough material in Johnston’s political career to power an entire Netflix series, but Robert Dawson Scott’s biographical play in fact begins in earnest at the point of Johnston’s retirement from party politics. We meet the protagonist (played with a characteristic politician’s mix of self-assurance and affability by Stephen Clyde) as he embarks on his post-war mission to bring electricity to the Highlands through the creation of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board.
Pic: Calum Hall
The play is not much more than an hour in length but Dawson Scott’s script is dense in historical detail, both about Johnston’s ambition to bring connection and employment to the glens while touching upon enduring contemporary debates around the redistribution of resources and political self-determination.
Martin Day’s lively musical compositions effectively move the story from scene-to-scene, even if the production does not always wear the heft of Dawson Scott’s research lightly. There is much that is interesting in Johnston’s backstory (he led the evacuation of St Kilda in 1930 on behalf of the government, for instance), but not everything here is dramatically compelling. The director Alasdair McCrone’s spare, clean production relies too heavily on his three-strong cast standing around talking. We hear tell of the fatalities suffered during the construction of the system of tunnels and dams, but we gain little visceral sense of the scale, complexity and toil involved in the project.
Pic: Calum Hall
The piece is at its most dramatically satisfying when it comes to focus on the friendship between the politician and Sandy MacKenzie (Alan MacKenzie), an aspiring journalist who reveres the Red Clydeside movement with which Johnston was associated, and who increasingly comes to view his idol’s desire to “get things done” as a betrayal of his roots. This familiar conflict between ideological purity and pragmatism animates the history lesson, as do the fine performances, with the cast rounded out by the versatile Beth Marshall in all the supporting roles, running the gamut from humble Highland householder via Speaker of the House of Commons to the Queen.
Touring Scotland to March 9. For details see comar.co.uk