A Voyage Around A Highland Icon

1 Sep 2011

EDEN Court Theatre already has something a track record in mounting its own productions, both on a relatively modest scale through the work of John Batty and the Education Unit, and in the annual co-production on the theatre’s panto.

THIS month’s co-production with Open Book of Para Handy – A Voyage Around The Stories of Neil Munro is a rather different venture, and an exciting one. In a period when funding is already very difficult in the arts, and likely to get much worse, it represents a very encouraging foray into large scale Highland theatre.

Okay, it is a long way from establishing Eden Court as a production house rather than predominantly a receiving one, but it is a big step in a good direction. The show is a new stage version adapted and directed by John Bett, produced by Eden Court and Open Book and funded by the Highland Culture Strategic Board as part of the Highland Arts Programme (through Creative Scotland’s Rural Innovation Fund).

John Bett checks out a Clyde puffer

John Bett checks out a Clyde puffer (photo Mandy Edwards)

Colin Marr, the director of Eden Court, welcomed the opportunity when the project was launched earlier this year at the theatre, saying that “the Para Handy stories are true Scottish gems and the opportunity to revive and ‘revitalise’ Neil Munro’s classic tales of The Vital Spark was just too good to pass up.”

It is also the culmination of a long-held ambition for John Bett, who first read the stories as an eight-year old, and has long wanted to do something with them. His approach to staging the show will reflect his own early immersion in the theatre-with-music approach pionereed by 7:84 and Wildcat, with a live band under the leadership of pianist and composer Robert Pettigrew joining the actors on stage.

Writing under the pen name of Hugh Foulis, Inveraray-born Neil Munro published the first of the Para Handy stories in the Glasgow Evening News in 1905, and continued writing them for much of his working life.

Their vivid evocation of life on the Clyde puffers before and after the First World War conjures up a long-departed era when the puffers formed a vital link between Glasgow and the west Highlands and Islands. Bett has sourced some amateur film footage from the era in the Scottish Film Archive, and will incorporate it in the show to help evoke the atmosphere of the period.

Munro’s stories were collected in three books, The Vital Spark (1906), In Highland Harbours (1911), and Hurricane Jack of the Vital Spark (1923), and have been adapted for television, including the much-loved series with the late Roddy McMillan as Para.

Invernessian Jimmy Chisholm will take on that role in the new production, which opens on 21 September at Eden Court before touring to His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, the Edinburgh Festival Theatre and the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. We wish all concerned good luck with the venture.

September also means the annual Blas festival, which this year features an intriguing commission which promises to provide a traditional music analogue to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (see Sue Wilson’s feature on the project).

In this year of Scotland’s Islands, the festival also offers two significant island-related projects, a new commission from Julie Fowlis inspired by her family connections with Heisgeir (also known as the Monach Isles), and a performance of Hallaig, a musical celebration of the poetry of Skye bard Sorley MacLean.

On the subject of music festivals, let’s not forget the very popular (and already sold out) Loopallu, which effectively closes the summer season of major outdoor festivals (what summer?, I hear you ask).

In keeping with the spirit of Blas, Right Lines’ Hi-wireless series features a Gaelic offering from Gavin Hutchinson this month, Eireaball na Dibhe. It means the hangover, and there may be a few of those around before the festivals close.

Kenny Mathieson


© Kenny Mathieson, 2011