Theatre review: Orphans – SEC Armadillo, Glasgow

First published in The Times, Sunday April 10 2022


Nostalgia for the 90s is pervasive at present, and this new musical from the National Theatre of Scotland will be catnip to those who hark back fondly to the decade of New Labour, devolution, Trainspotting and Friends. The production is an adaptation of the 1998 film directed by Peter Mullan: one of a string of Glasgow-set gems from the era that also includes Small Faces and Stella Does Tricks.

The show, adapted by Douglas Maxwell, the playwright, with songs by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, and featuring an energetic 15-strong ensemble, skilfully marshalled by Cora Bissett, retains the bare bones of the original, while fighting shy of its comic misanthropy. The opening scenes introduce us to the Flynn siblings, four disparate characters who have gathered to pay their final respects to their saintly mother. A series of arguments and incidents conspire to send these orphans spinning off into the night, as storm clouds gather over the Dear Green Place.

Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Thomas (Robert Florence), the eldest, stands watch over Ma’s coffin, convening with the Lord while attempting to repair a broken statue of the Virgin Mary. Sheila (Amy Conachan), a wheelchair user, determined to assert her independence, falls in with a scrappy newspaper sales team. Meanwhile, Michael (Reuben Joseph), nursing a stab wound inflicted during a pub brawl, embarks on his own dark night of the soul, while youngest child John (Dylan Wood) sets out on a path of angry vengeance.

The wider backdrop to these individual stories is a raucous cityscape of larger-than-life characters and recognisable Glasgow icons, recreated in Emily James’s inspired, multifaceted, ever-shifting set design. The best of Hart and Reilly’s songs are tangential to the main action, but wonderfully unabashed at setting the scene, and there are dynamic supporting turns from Louise McCarthy and John McLarnon, as crabbit publicans, and Paul McCole, who gets to perform an entire number devoted to the city’s favourite curse word-cum-term of endearment.

Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Where Mullan’s film is remembered for its pessimism, the tone of Bissett’s production is notably warmer, verging on sentimentality. Running to nearly three hours, Maxwell’s script might have been more ruthlessly edited, and a couple of the more on-the-nose songs could easily have been dropped, but the characterisations are engaging, while the exuberance of the big musical numbers prove irresistible.

King’s, Edinburgh, April 12-16; Eden Court, Inverness, April 28-30.

Author: Allan Radcliffe

I am a writer, freelance journalist, subeditor and theatre critic, based in South Queensferry. My short fiction has been published in anthologies such as Out There, Elsewhere, The Best Gay Short Stories, ImagiNation, Markings, Gutter, New Writing Scotland and Celtic View. I have won the Scottish Book Trust's New Writer's Award and several of my stories have been adapted for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a journalist I write regularly for The Times, the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald, Sunday Times, Metro, Big Issue and I was formerly assistant editor of The List magazine.

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