Review – MacPherson’s Rant

Oct 21 2009 | By More

New musical hits the the high notes


Church Hill Theatre: Tue 20 – Sat 24 Oct 2009
Review by Thom Dibdin

Bold, earthy and playing heavily on its roots, John Ward’s brand spanking new musical, MacPherson’s Rant, received its world premier in an amateur production up at the Church Hill Theatre last night.

The show takes the story of one James MacPherson, unjustly hanged in Banff for being a vagrant in 1700. His death was infamously hurried through when the magistrates thought a reprieve was on the way.

MacPherson existed in real life, although the show is based on the traditional song taken up, added to and immortalised by Robert Burns as MacPherson’s Lament. In it, MacPherson’s death is hastened when the town clock is moved forward by a quarter hour.

This is sparky stuff, making excellent use of several other Burns songs which are given strong arrangements by Simon Hanson and James McCutcheon, mixing rock music sensibilities in with traditional airs and fiddle tunes.

The musical builds on the romanticisation of MacPherson, pushing him gently into the Jacobite camp, while his adversaries side with the English crown. It is a moot point as to whether the modern dance routines that take traditional Scottish dances as their root but present them in a decidedly untraditional manner are advisable. They are certainly entertaining.

In the title role, Robert Moyes is quite the dashing young lad, a roving fiddler who has gone up to Banff to find his father after his mother’s deathbed revelation that it was the Laird of Banff. Moyes impresses with his clear and fully rounded voice. He is quite the equal of all the music and has the stage presence to carry off such a big role.

There are also very strong performances in the key roles of Bess Frazer, the lass who James falls for in Banff, and the Laird – who has just arranged to take Bess as his wife. Her father is not really in a position to refuse the Laird and, under duress, nor is Bess.

Lesley Ward, as Bess, alternates between being a touch stilted in her manner and overplaying, but still succeeds in bringing out the dire nature of Bess’s predicament. But it is her singing voice which catches the imagination most.


Ian Aldred is a truly nasty piece of work as the villainous Laird. You quite believe the ease with which he is able to manipulate his weak-willed son, compromise his intended or blankly deny his relationship with James when the evidence is clear and at hand.

There are more strong performances right through the cast. Susan Semple is excellent as Mary, Bess’s slow-witted younger sister who is just one instrument through which the Laird can get his hooks into Bess.

The large ensemble make a strong showing, too. Although it is with them that director Gaby Pavone’s lack of a strong hand is most obvious. Mairi Beaver as Bess’s best friend Mhairi Duncan and Sean Quinn as Mhairi’s fiancé, the Laird’s legitimate son Ian, are similarly hampered in their scenes which do not flow as they should.

Indeed, the flow of the whole production is what is holding it back. It is not just that many scenes need a bit more drive and continuity to them, but the overall structure of the piece needs to be looked at again. All the elements are there, it is just that they don’t always build to a high point at the places which would be most natural.

This is despite a huge and remarkably clever stage set which uses an overhead revolve that looks a bit like the internal mechanics of a wind-up clock. It is perhaps a bit too clever. Such mechanisms demand impeccable timing from the backstage crew – who themselves need exhaustive rehearsals to get the scene-changes sweet.

Writer and producer John Ward is keen that his musical gets a further life beyond this week’s run. It certainly deserves it and the production is well worth seeing. It should also help him see where it could do with a bit of tightening up.

A fascinating evening’s entertainment. Particularly so given that Confessions of a Justified Sinner, currently at the Lyceum, is set in the same era.

Running time: one hour and 55 minutes.

MacPherson’s Rant website


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

Sites That Link to this Post

  1. EdFringe Musicals : All Edinburgh | Jul 30 2019
  1. Myra Jamieson says:

    An excellent show. Singing was brilliant. The production team and cast made the best of a tricky venue. Weird to be sitting in what was the swimming pool.