Throughout our programme of events we were fortunate to have Karen Thomas, an
independent reviewer, watching and providing insights into many of our events, mainly plays. Here is an opportunity for you to revisit some of the events. The reviews are listed in date order, as events appeared.
JOURNEY OF A HOME
This was a charming and beautiful audio piece by Katerina Radeva and Alister Lownie, who write and perform together as 2 Destination Language. The narrative is an evocation of travel and migration: a young woman describes the excitement and anticipation of a new life, whilst a second voice explores notions of travel - relocation and dislocation and their meaning and symbolism. We hear of the ‘othering’ experience of airport departure and arrival procedures and
consider how airports function mainly to channel people into queues to facilitate waiting. The young girl describes her pride and elation of the final arrival, but we also learn of what she has left behind - family, friends, home, possessions - to which she owes her values and sense of identity.
We are invited to consider borders in many senses, as frontiers and barriers, but also as the exciting and challenging interface between the future and the past. Journey of a Home was beautifully paced and perfectly delivered.
WHERE HAS OUR ADVENTURE GONE?
Another ordinary lockdown evening for comfortable middleaged couple Michael
and Harriet begins its journey with the bemoaning the loss of the local pub and a
yearned-for trip to Africa, but soon wanders into territory which harbours many
of the great issues of our times. Whilst plague stalks the land, the couple begin to
ruminate from the safety of their cozy front room; they posit alternative venues for male bonding, then move onto cancel culture and the safety of frontline workers
during the pandemic. The longed-for trip also poses environmental questions,
to which extensive treeplanting may only be part of the solution.
As the plot unfolds, personal revelations prompt heartfelt explorations of misogyny,rape, street crime and racism, which despite Harriet and Michael’s best efforts, all
remain as unsolved in their living room as they do in society.
This was an absorbing and disquieting piece of writing by Borders Playwright, actorand director Jane Houston-Green, who also played the passionate Harriet with great assurance. Nick Tomlin of Duns Players turned in a nuanced and understated performance as the calm and caring Michael, which left space for well-judged moments of frustration and conviction.
The filming of productions, as necessitated in this year’s festival’s Covid regulation, can often result in a loss of the immediacy of a live theatre performance, but in this case, the play has been enhanced by the camera, bringing an almost claustrophobic intensity to the set which sat well will both plot and performances.
IN PRAISE OF LISTENING
Christian McEwen, author of ‘World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down’ presented excerpts from ‘The Beloved Voice’, a chapter in her new work ‘In Praise of Listening’. The book promises to be an enlightening and soothing read - perhaps best read out loud:
McEwen just happens to have an appropriately calming and mellifluous voice. Her readings provided us with a fascinating guide through aspects of listening to and hearing the voices of those familiar to us, of which we may not always be consciously aware. Using examples from literature, science, psychoanalysis, and personal experience, she revealed that when we listen to a friend or loved one, our listening goes far beyond a mere processing of the narrative; indeed, our whole bodies resonate and respond to the tone and timbre of the beloved voice. As
McEwen reflected of her own experience, we may not have heard the voices of our loved ones for many years but can recognise and recall them instantly; a skill we acquired in the womb.
She also reflected upon the importance of the voice which has also been paramount during the current pandemic, allowing us to retain a sense of connection and community. When denied physical companionship, we can gain as much from of the ‘lilt and sway’ of a loved one’s voice as we do from the content of the conversation. Indeed, the content often becomes less important than our embodied response to the tones and rhythms of familiar voices.
The readings were interspersed with delightful musical interludes provided by violinist Sarah Bauhan and violinist Jane Orzechowski, which gave their own lilt and sway to the piece.
Lea Taylor and Nicola Wright are masterful professional storytellers, and their Play Fest show ‘Pedigree Tales’ was a worthy showcase of their talents. Credit must alsobe given to their two canine assistants, who were beautifully presented and
impeccably behaved throughout.
The show was indeed a treat for dog lovers of all ages, but also funny enough to delight those who are perhaps less enthusiastic about man’s best friends. It included
hilarious sketches ranging from badly behaved dogs on the bus to a helpful guide topicking up your dog’s poo - using the correct accessories of course (gold-plated
scoop is de rigueur) - and always avoiding being seen by your dog whilst cleaning up its mess lest it should henceforth regard you as inferior.
The show had its serious side too, as both storytellers told moving tales of
incredible canine bravery, loyalty, and ingenuity. These included accounts of some
of the winners of the Dickin Medal for gallantry, instituted by Maria Dickin (founder of the PDSA) to honour the work of animals in the second world war. The expert
storytelling successfully avoided over-sentimentalisation, and the brisk pace
ensured that we remained engaged and enchanted kthroughout.
Written, directed, and performed by one-man cast of thousands better known
as John McEwen, this show took us at breakneck speed through centuries of
Scottish political and cultural history from early times to the present in an attempt
to answer the question ‘Whit Like’ (translated as ‘What is Scotland Like?’ for the
culturally challenged). It’s unclear if a definitive Conclusion was reached, but our
begowned guide pointed out that in many arenas, Scotland frequently (and often
unexpectedly) loses (see battles, football matches, control of the country etc.)
Historic but unforgotten crimes perpetrated by our larger marauding neighbour against Scots (see proscription of kilt-wearing, relegation of the Scots language to
dialect status, appropriation of oil revenues to name but a few) have promoted a
permanent sense of oppression which shows little sign of abating, as the
Independence question gathers momentum.
On the other hand, Scotland was rarely averse to indulging in a little oppression of
its own at the whiff of a few bob (see racism, witchhunting, slavery, Highland and
Lowland Clearances and wholehearted involvement in the British Empire.)
However, what cannot be denied is that in terms of culture, Scotland has always
punched above its weight. We were presented with a dazzling array of literary and
cultural luminaries and visionary thinkers from the Borders’ own James Hogg and David Hume, through Boswell, Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott to
name but a few. In the last 50 years or so, there has been another great
flowering in Scottish literature and drama including (but not restricted to) John
McGrath, James Kerman, Liz Lochead, and Kathleen Jamie, who have done much torespond to the question ‘Whit Like.’
This was a simply stunning piece of writing which succeeded in being both
lighthearted and blisteringly direct. In his many guises, McEwen delivered an
athletic bravura performance, displaying impeccable comic timing and astonishing versatility. A tour de force; catch it if you can.
This ripping yarn from Wilson’s tales was beautifully adapted for the stage by
Michael Fenty and performed with gusto by Duns Players. Jamie, a humble candle maker, is a liar and a fantasist who entertains bored local lads with his tall tales.
Rarely is anyone taken in until he shares a carriage with a girl who he regales with tales of his bravery in rescuing a young lady from the river the previous year.
Unluckily for him, it transpires that she is the rescued young lady, although not by
him - the real hero had left the scene quickly.
Following yet more lies, things escalate and Jamie finds himself before the magistrate (Nigel Warren) after being reported by the pub landlord (Peter Lerpiniere) with whom he has shared tall tales of his radical activity leading a hundred men.
Directed by Michael Fenty and produced by John McEwen, this lively production wasfilmed by Glen Shepherd at Polwarth church.
Unfortunately, the Brewery Arts Centre Kendal contribution of 3 plays and a
monologue did not appear in this premiere. It was a late addition to programme,
due to technical problems.
Last night we were treated to 3 great pieces of new writing performed by the Duns Players as part of a collaboration with the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. As the
title suggests, the productions explored the tensions and challenges that face
Borderers, from historical, contemporary, and future perspectives.
The first was ‘The King’s Pin’: a cracking, pacy and unsettling tale by Craig Knight,
which airs the possibility that King James IV did not die at the battle of Flodden. Theplay opens to a newly engaged couple, one from each side of the Border,
celebrating their prospective union in a cozy pub. The man, a descendent of the
Earlof Surrey, commander of the English forces at Flodden, offers his betrothed a
family heirloom which has been in his family for hundreds of years. As the tale
unfolds, we learn that this heirloom is the kilt pin of the vanquished Scottish
King, and comes with a curse. Eventually, it is revealed that the fiancée is an incarnation of the witch from whom his ancestor secured the King’s Pin, and she’s
hellbent on revenge. Any distractions resulting from the restrictions of filming
under social distancing regulations are soon forgotten as this gripping yarn gets
under way, supported by terrific performances from Kate Lester as the
witch/fiancée and Craig Knight as the Earl of Surrey/fiancé. Under the expert
direction of Eloner Crawford, this play was a triumph which will thrill a live
The second play ‘Border’, by Kevin Purvis, was a thought-provoking imagining of life
for Borderers sometime after Scotland has gained Independence from the UK. It’s
not giving away too much to say Independence doesn’t seem to have been entirely
positive for Borderers, as revealed by a middle-aged Borders couple sitting
in an interminable car queue at the Border checkpoint waiting to do their shopping
in Berwick upon Tweed. A sense of unease descends as the couple’s chat is
interrupted by radio news bulletins reporting what sounds like an attempted coup
at the Scottish parliament. The plot slowly uncovers the couple’s family
involvement in that and various other acts of dissent, as well as their own
subversive roles as they attempt to mitigate some of the injustices visited upon
them by the break-up of the Union.
This was an imaginative consideration of the possible negative aspects of life post Scottish Independence and its potential impact upon families split by the Border.
Carole Robson and Graham Bryans were excellent as Cameron and Aileen, and the piece was deftly directed by Eloner Crawford.
Still on the theme of Scottish Independence, ‘Going it Alone’ was a delightful and
witty piece by writer Eloner Crawford on the breakup of a relationship as a
metaphor for the breakup of the UK. We are party to a conversation between two
partners in a relationship - she wishes to ‘do something different’ and go it alone,
whilst he does his level best to persuade her to stay in the relationship by dint of
listing all the pitfalls and downsides (although these do seem to be
mainly for him.) Throughout the discussion, she (Scotland) tries to highlight the
positives, such as staying close and remaining friends, whilst he (England) seems more concerned about losing his possessions. Eric Branse-Instone turned in an assured performance as an ever-so-slightly patronising England, whilst Emma Lindsay shone as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Scotland looking forward to her freedom - albeit with trepidation. Clever and economical writing allowed
this play to articulate much despite its brevity, and well-judged direction by the writer ensured that it rolled along briskly.
All 3 plays were produced by John McEwen and filmed by Glen Shepherd.
HOGG IN THE LIMELIGHT
A feast for the Hogg fan, these four short plays were all inspired by the 18th/19th century poet, essayist, and novelist James Hogg, widely known as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’. The first, “In the Fold’ by Campbell Hutchison’ was a well-written and humourous piece which imagines a conversation between Hogg and a sheep, in which the sheep tries to explain to him Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The second, ‘I Hear this Voice’ by Robert Sproul Cran is an eerie and sinister tale of 2 men who stumble upon a bothy which was once the home of Hogg’s
grandparents, and begin to discuss the nature of schizophrenia in Hogg’s Book ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ with disturbing consequences.
Then we had ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ by Anita John, an interesting and dream-like piece in which characters from the book are interviewed by St Peter at the pearly gates.
'James Hogg and the Corbie Craw' by Roger Simian
was a witty and amusing piece which rounded off the evening with a discussion between Hogg and a crow. All these short plays were lively and creative reimagining of and tributes to of Hogg’s work, and his deep connection to nature, but the performances undoubtedly suffered under the restrictions imposed by Covid. The static nature of the acting (again due to Covid restrictions) often meant the scripts were hard to follow, especially where actors played more than one part. There is no doubt that as live theatre performances with costumes, props and audiences, these plays would come into their own.
THE STRANGE CASE OF JEKYLL AND HYDE
Anyone familiar with the work of Northumberland Theatre Company will be
unsurprised that they have responded to the loss of live performance with
ingenuity and panache. Adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella by NTC’s
Louis Roberts and Stewart Howson, the Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde was a
masterclass in how to create gripping drama on film with few frills.
The sparse set contained a screen, 3 chairs, a table, and a coat stand; whilst
precious few props and understated costumes meant that the screenplay (Stewart Howson) and the performances had little to hide behind. (Lavish TV Crime melodramas take note.) Fortunately, a razor sharp script and masterly performances
ensured that this was a slick and lively production. Louis Roberts was perfectly measured and likeable as the loyal and trustworthy Utterson. Philip Harrison’s
performance as both scientist and madman were suitably unhinged yet restrained and nuanced enough to avoid the trap of sliding into caricature. Sean Kenney
was pitch perfect as the sensitive and humane DI Birch, whilst retaining just the
right level of exasperated world weary plod. The brilliantly executed choreography between the three of them during Jekyll’s confession added pace and
rhythm to the performances, whilst subtly rolling the plot forward. Special mention must also be given to lightning designer, Stuart Harrison, whose subtle changes unobtrusively complemented the frequent changes of mood.
At just under 30 minutes, this piece is a little gem - not to be missed.