Playing With Books – the Long Drop

Aug 26 2021 | By More

…and other recent Book Festival events

by Hugh Simpson

The Book Festival continues in its new home at the Edinburgh College of Art on Lauriston Place, and also continues to offer events of interest to theatre-goers.

The latest in the Playing With Books strand in collaboration with the Lyceum was unusual in that it featured a production that is already some way towards becoming an on-stage reality. Dominic Hill from the Glasgow Citizens has commissioned Linda McLean to adapt Denise Mina’s novel The Long Drop. While, as usual, the performers had only seen any kind of script a few days before, the process of adaptation was clearly more advanced than is often the case in these events.

Jonathan Watson, Brian Ferguson and Lewis Howden perform an extract from The Long Drop. Screengrab: All Edinburgh Theatre

There were substantial chunks performed of the story of Peter Manuel, the serial killer who in 1955 was one of the last people to be hanged in Scotland. Particularly instructive was the insight into how drama is created when a scene was performed in two differing ways. Initially with Brian Ferguson (deeply troubling as Manuel), Jonathan Watson and Lewis Howden talking, then with the excellent Anita Vettesse the focal point as she eavesdropped.

A lengthy courtroom scene featured movement direction from Kally Lloyd-Jones, and it was clear that even in a short time the cast (also featuring Ewan Miller, John Macaulay, a chilling Andy Clark and a mesmeric Simon Donaldson) had achieved considerable cohesion in a short space of time.

As always, the discussion, skilfully led by David Greig, provided remarkable insight into the creative process, and it is clear that (whatever your feelings about a great many in Scotland’s continuing obsession with Manuel) this is a project with real potential.

settling down

Opinion seems to be divided among Festival attendees about the move to the Art College, but many appreciate the space, and things are definitely settling down. An early lack of signage, particularly regarding availability of refreshment, has been addressed, and the area shares with the old venue an ability to seem a peaceful oasis despite being in such a busy area.

The Glasgow ensemble Capella Nova perform Songs from Scotland. Pic: Robin Mair

The future success of the ‘hybrid’ model is important, not least because all of the festivals will surely be forced to go down a similar route, for environmental reasons if for no others.

It remains to be seen whether ‘pay what you like’ will have an effect on in-person numbers – that is something that can only be gauged in future years. The big screen in the garden is definitely a welcome and popular addition, and provides an excellent way of watching sold-out events.

In particular, the sun setting and the purplish artificial light taking over, accompanied by the haunting extended lines of Gavin Bryars’s settings of Edwin Morgan, performed by Cappella Nova utilising the full range of the human voice, was a truly magical moment.

Songs from Scotland

This was part of Songs from Scotland, an event featuring the Festival’s continued commitment to the memory of Morgan. Bryars paid tribute to Morgan’s diverse and virtuosic output when discussing the work, commissioned by the Festival and Celtic Connections to commemorate Morgan’s centenary last year.

That Bryars (typically puckish when asserting he would be happier only setting the sonnets of Petrarch) is someone who has been influenced by many styles is only fitting, as was the contrast with the closing segment, where Karine Polwart and folky jazz pianist David Milligan performed two numbers. One, The Good Years, from a text by Morgan, is a staple of Polwart performances; the other, the Morgan-inspired Siccar Point, reminded in its spoken-word elements how much we need a follow-up to Polwart’s Wind Resistance.

The opening act was Canada-born, Scotland-resident poet Alycia Pirmohamed, winner of the 2020 Morgan Prize and whose lucid, landscape-inflected poetry provided further variety.

Mara Menzies. Screengrab: All Edinburgh Theatre

A similar exploration of different cultures and styles came from the appearance of Kenyan/Scottish storyteller Mara Menzies, whose 2019 Fringe hit. Blood And Gold is shortly to appear as a novel.

In a typically involving event, there were ruminations on identity, culture, narrative and belonging, but most importantly on the stories we tell ourselves and each other, both as people and as a people. There were salutary reminders that while there are many stories that are born from empathy and are designed to create similar feelings, this is not true of all of them. David Greig is the ideal host for such an event as he thinks aloud sympathetically and eruditely, encapsulating many of the things that make the Book Festival so vital.

Many of the Book Festival events are available to watch on demand on a pay-what-you-can basis until the end of the year.

However, some have a more limited timeframe. Songs from Scotland was only available until 8.30pm on Thursday 26 August. The Long Drop is available until 8.30pm on Saturday 28 August.

The Long Drop
Watch online until Sat 28 Aug. 8.30pm:

Mara Menzies – A Story Of Identity
Watch online:
Blood And Gold will be published by Birlinn on 7 October.
Pre-order at

The final Playing With Books event is:

The Yellow Door by Kathleen Jamie
Mon 30 Aug 2021
Live and online: 8.30-10pm.
Tickets and online viewing details:

The Book Festival continues until 30 August. All events are available online, with limited in-person tickets available. The new venue at the Edinburgh College of Art is free for visitors, with selected events available to watch on a big screen in the courtyard.

Details at


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