Highland Quest Final

10 Jul 2006 in Dance & Drama, Highland, Music

MacPhail Centre, Ullapool, 8 July 2006

Aftermath of the Quest winner announcement! © Phil Downie

As I drove into Ullapool on Saturday afternoon the strains of a pipe band were audible. What an appropriate welcome, I thought, for those who have come to see the fulfilment of the Highland Quest. As it turned out, the pipers were playing for the summer fair down on the pier and had nothing to do with the very different gathering up at the MacPhail Centre. That element of confusion and ambiguity proved to be a fitting symbol for what followed.

Carol Metcalfe, one of the judges, has already described in detail for Northings how the Quest process has been undertaken (see below). At this stage it’s enough to note that these five finalists had been whittled down from an original, world-wide entry of 144, and a long list of 43. That process had involved an army of readers, of which I was one, to ensure that the broadest base of opinion informed the selection processes.

In this final stage of ‘the Highland Quest for a New Musical’ the Eden Court Theatre and Cameron Mackintosh Limited had set themselves a formidable challenge: to produce, in one week, 30 minute extracts from five very different musicals, each with their own cast, stage director and musical director. The logistics are daunting, and it may be that no conventional theatre building could have met the demands. With its plethora of classrooms and meeting rooms, empty at the start of the school holidays, the MacPhail was perhaps the ideal venue, and the main auditorium, being very much the kind of venue to which the winner is expected to tour, created just the right electric combination of intimacy and spectacle.

Above all, this was a great evening of theatre. The Quest team had assembled a remarkable company for this final, including some of Scotland’s best known and most versatile performers. One entrant alone had the advantage of two former members of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the lead roles! Certainly, everyone involved had made a heroic effort to present each competitor in the best possible light. Inevitably sets, props and costumes were minimal, but only a very few performers felt the need to keep the script close to hand, and every show was fully blocked and choreographed. True stars of the evening were the team of students from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama who provided the chorus and smaller parts, with many of them appearing in all five shows. Their sheer zest and professionalism were a powerful advertisement for the current quality of the college.

…that word ‘Highland’ is left hanging in the air like an unresolved chord…

By the time we had seen all five competitors, most of the audience were agreed that it was a two-horse race. Balloons (by Alison Prince and Andrew Keeling) and Marrying Meg (by Mark Robertson) could be easily discounted, as both were very disappointing, and for much the same reasons—scripts laden with stereotyped characters and situations, and music that was bland and unmemorable (and sometimes downright clumsy to sing). In fact, many of us readers were surprised that these two had made it to the final at all, in the face of what we each felt were stronger candidates.

Shenachie was a very different matter. Sally Beamish is of course a highly acclaimed composer of contemporary classical music, and her score was indeed richly beautiful with a density of texture unmatched by any other competitor, and much that was truly memorable (although some attempts at humorous numbers were oddly heavy-handed). But here’s where the ambiguity starts to come in—was this a musical? The leads were taken by fully operatic voices which failed to match comfortably with the ‘singing actors’ of the rest of the company. At first I thought Beamish was trying to create a Highland ‘Oklahoma’, but by the time we reached the Act 1 finale I felt her model was more Copland’s only opera ‘The Tender Land’. Ultimately, though, Shenachie was sunk by its script—a heavily clichéd and laborious retread of the Highland Clearances.

So for most of us that left Whisky Kisses by the ‘home team’ of Dave Smith and Euan Martin, with music by actor James Bryce, and the dark horse of the evening, Sundowe by the Kielty brothers. Of course, we don’t know if the judges saw it this way, but it’s a strong bet they did.

Whisky Kisses ended the first half on a high. Smith and Martin have a well-established track record of writing sharp, manic and very funny comedies, from Accidental Death of an Accordionist to Who Bares Wins, their take on the Naked Rambler saga. So we expected, and got, a frenetic storyline which stood Highland clichés on their heads and packed in more outrageous puns than Cole Porter on a good day. The revelation was Bryce’s music, with an opening, through-composed, sequence set in New York which was almost as complex and many-stranded as Beamish’s ensembles, and a closing solo which, in Alyth McCormack’s radiant singing, was the single most memorable and beautiful moment of the whole evening.

Sundowe, on the other hand, almost defies description. Which may be why the authors’ biographies in the programme were so uninformative. However a little websearching reveals that the three Kielty brothers have a remarkable pedigree in music, stage and soon-to-be TV work. In an Ideasfactory interview they describe their work as ‘the Monkees meet Rentaghost’, which is probably as close as you can get to summing up this high-energy, thoroughly engaging, completely loopy mix of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Greyfriars Bobby’. Two Kieltys take the lead roles, as member of street band ‘The Martians’ (the name of the brothers’ real-life band), frantically trying to save Edinburgh from being overwhelmed by vampires, zombies and bubonic plague. Oh, and there’s some sharp political satire in there was well.

So the choice, it seemed was between a truly ‘Highland’ musical, tautly written with a cynical yet affectionate take on Highland traditions and sentiment, and something that may just have the street-cred zaniness to draw a younger audience into the world of musical theatre.

Was this, then, a quest for a musical for the Highlands, or for the next big Cameron Mackintosh hit? Here’s where the ambiguity and confusion come in with a vengeance, and they lie beneath the very concept of ‘Highland 2007’, of which the Quest is a major component. Both Eden Court Director Colin Marr (himself a member of the Board of Highland 2007), and the Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sport, Patricia Ferguson, referred blithely in their speeches to the impending celebrations as the ‘Highland Year of Culture’. And you would think they ought to know. But what the First Minister originally announced was the ‘Year in which Scotland celebrates Highland culture’ which is surely a very different matter. Is this Highland culture on a national stage, or just culture (of any kind) in the Highlands?

Perhaps these questions never crossed the judges’ minds. Perhaps, by this final, questions of eligibility and appropriateness were completely irrelevant. So, having delayed my announcement almost as long as the event organisers on the night, I can now reveal that winner was—Sundowe. And the standing ovation given to the reprise of the show’s big number proved that this was a popular choice. Sundowe certainly has the potential to be the first truly international hit musical originating in Scotland, and the Kielty brothers have talent and charisma in spades. They are truly worthy winners of the quest for a new musical, and I’m also sure that Whisky Kisses will ultimately make it to a professional production somewhere. But that word ‘Highland’ is left hanging in the air like an unresolved chord…

© Robert Livingston, 2006

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