Leithers Live – the Custom House Play

Jun 21 2022 | By More

★★★★☆     Intriguing

Leith Custom House: Fri 17 – Sat 18 June 2022
Review by Thom Dibdin

The Citadel Arts Group sketch out the history Leith as seen through the women folk of one family in this clever piece of promenade drama which plays through the rooms of the Leith Custom House for four performances only.

The play is a distillation of scenes from the company’s series of ten minute audio plays, Leithers One Family, itself based on chapters from William Haddow’s popular historic novel of the same name which follows the fictional Preston family as they engage with real historical events over 600 years.

Mark Kydd. Pic: Eric Robinson

Director Liz Hare has assembled a small but pithy company of five to portray the host of characters who are seen over Leithers Live’s ten scenes.

Mark Kydd takes on the crucial narratorial role of Tam the Storyteller with all the necessary style and panache to ensure that the vagaries of shepherding an audience of 35 or so around the passages and hidden rooms of the Custom House are easily dealt with.

Kydd is both a genial host and a commanding presence. Controlling and conducting an audience is crucial to the success of such an immersive show as this. Kydd is at ease both when ensuring that everyone can see the action as it takes place up stairs, down in basements and even out on the quayside, then giving the scenes a context.

flavour and location

He is helped in this with a strong introductory script in broad Scots from Hilary Spiers, who also writes the first scene. It gives a flavour and location to a production. While that first scene sets out the scheme of the production nicely, as it sees history largely through the eyes of the women involved.

Gregor Davidson, Mairi Jayne Weir and Debbie Whyte. Pic: Eric Robinson

Here, Deborah Whyte is a determined Agnes Preston, an innkeeper’s wife chasing rats from her cellar in 1398. Dismayed by the news that Leith it to be annexed by Edinburgh, with the licensing laws closing the business down, she resorts to instant retribution in the form of rat pie.

Whyte takes on many of the more forceful roles. She is joined by Mairi Jayne Weir, who both has a delightful singing voice and brings some of the younger roles to life. Stephanie Falls takes on some of the more sensitive Prestons, with an attractive vocal delivery that gives real clarity to the scenes.

uncomfortable truths

Gregor Davidson drops in for all but one of the male Peston roles. At times a conniving thief, at others doing the job no one else will take – hanging witches – or playing a returning sailor whose contraband kegs of Jamaican rum are lost on the quayside in a massacre of Highland soldiers by the Fencibles.

Scenes such as these mix real historical details with the fictional characters – the rum in this case is made up, but the sailors taking part in the slave trade and the massacre, are not. One of the production’s successes is that it doesn’t shy away from acknowledging uncomfortable truths along with its more couthy elaborations.

Stephanie Falls and Mairi Jayne Weir. Pic Eric Robinson

Running at only an hour, the play itself only just manages to do justice to its material, dipping briefly into scenes which are parts of far greater events. Any longer would probably have been too much for the format, however, with several scenes all-standing and most with only a few seats available.

Given these constraints this is a fine piece of work. Perhaps, with a slightly more generously proportioned venue, it could be expanded to bring the whole series of audio plays to the stage. As it is the ten writers give just enough voice to make the whole piece hang together and keep their individual sections coherent.

Liz Hare directs with due sensibility for the nuances of the venue, with Roddy Simpson providing subtle  but helpful elements of lighting. James Bryce is a constant presence, improvising the live music to fit in with the vagaries of a promenade performance.

A fascinating production that entertains while adding colour and depth to Leith’s local history.

Running time: One hour (no interval)
Leith Custom House, 65-67 Commercial St, Leith, EH6 6LH
Fri 17/Sat 18 June 2022
Twice daily: 2pm & 7pm.
Citadel Arts Group Facebook page: @CitadelArtsGroup/
The Leithers – One Family audio dramas are available here: https://www.citadelgoesviral.com.

Gregor Davidson. Pic: Eric Robinson


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  1. Yvonne Bruce says:

    Saw the dress rehearsal of this and loved it and for me the end came all too quickly as wanted to know what was coming next. However there has to be an end but certainly left me feeling I wanted more.