Atlantic Double Bill

Aug 17 2017 | By More

Atlantic: America & the Great War – ★★★★☆ Ambitious

Atlantic: A Scottish Story – ★★★☆☆ Ambitious with a different accent

Assembly Hall (Venue 35) Fri 4 – Sun 27 August
Review by Martin Gray

Here’s something unique at the Assembly Hall: two new musicals by groups in the UK and US, linked across the Atlantic by the theme of posing the same question.

A collaboration between the always impressive Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the American Music Theatre Project at Chicago’s Northwestern University and award-winning musical theatre partnership Nutcracker, the shows that make up the Atlantic duology ask: is it a curse to stay in, or a curse to leave, your homeland?

A scene from Atlantic: America & the Great War. Pic RCS

Ryan Bernsten and Desiree Staples’ America & the Great War begins a century ago, with two young Americans crossing the water to join the war in Europe, before the US officially became involved. Their reasons are different: for farmboy Jesse, it’s mainly about adventure; for volunteer nurse Jane, it’s a chance to get free passage to Europe, with the eventual hope of reaching her birth mother’s birthplace of Skye.

Jane pleads with sister Annabelle to join her, but the latter doesn’t want to figuratively chase after the mother who abandoned them. So Jane goes alone, meets Jesse… and is reported missing, presumed dead.

Months later, Annabelle tells the funeral crowd gathered for Jane that she won’t mourn her, she feels her sister is yet alive. It’s time to take that journey to Europe…

As Jane, Annabelle and Jesse, Mariah Copeland, Abigail Stephenson and Neal Davidson give appealing performances, capturing their characters’ emotions with skill. Christopher Anselmo’s original songs tap into the American folk tradition which serves Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins so well. Some are rousing, others emotional ballads; all are performed with conviction by the sizeable ensemble.


There’s an occasional problem with hearing the dialogue due to the music continuing after the foreground characters have ceased singing. This is much worse in sister play A Scottish Story; here, a hissing sound presumably meant to represent the sea, along with the background harmonies of the ensemble and house band, often make it tough to make out what’s being said. It’s already a challenge, if a pleasant one, to catch every word spoken in the strong island accent affected by the cast. Sometimes, as with a sung invitation to celebrate Hogmanay, it’s impossible.

A scene from Atlantic: A Scottish Story. Pic RCS

Set decades prior to American & the Great War on a tiny island off the coast of Scotland, A Scottish Story begins with Quinn and Evie meeting for the first time. A fractious friendship develops into love. She dreams of going across the sea, he wants to take her… but Evie feels a duty to help support her family, and takes the job offered by local mill owner Sloane. So Quinn leaves on his own, fetching up first in Dublin, then New York. Evie and Quinn yearn for one another – will they ever be brought together again by the Atlantic?

Reed Lancaster and Caroline Lyell are delightful as the young Quinn and Evie. Vanishing from the main action early on, Quinn’s character remains essentially the same – whimsical, puppyish – but Lyell has a greater challenge, developing her character into womanhood and motherhood. She’s well up to it, convincingly transforming Evie from dreamer to a woman disappointed by life. Her sweet singing voice serves the score well, and she’s not alone; the whole cast make a good fist of Anselmo’s folk-inflicted tunes, it’s just a shame the sound balance is off.

As problems go, though, tweaking the technical details is surmountable. The big plus is that Scott Gilmour and Clare McKenzie’s A Scottish Story is a bewitching tale put across with flair by confident young performers. It’s sure to resonate with both native Scots and tourists drawn to the towel-kilt and Jimmy wig.

Fans of original musical theatre should also check it out, along with America & the Great War. The latter has the advantage in terms of passion and humour – while Annabelle is always good company and a sympathetic character, Evie eventually verges on the shrewish, breaking the heart of the nicest guy on the island. Both plays are nicely directed – A Scottish Story by Gilmour, America & the Great War by David H Bell – with simple staging ensuring the barriers between cast and audience are few.

While no direct link is made between the plays – you would expect hints that Quinn or Evie were ancestors of Annabelle and Jane – both invoke questions of heritage and identity, and feature characters fascinated by the sea, wondering what’s over there, what’s out there for them. You could do a lot worse than go to the Mound and find out.

The two parts of Atlantic play in rep.
A Scottish Story on odd dates.
America & the Great War on even dates

Running times: 1 hour (not interval)
Assembly Hall, Mound Place, EH1 2LU (venue 35)
Thursday 3 – Sunday 27 August 2017
Daily, 3pm.
Tickets and details:

Details on the RCS at the Fringe website:

Twitter: @RCStweets


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