Rowan Rheingans: Dispatches on the Red Dress

Aug 23 2019 | By More

★★★★☆    Quietly compelling

Scottish Storytelling Centre (Venue 30): Thurs 15– Mon 26 Aug 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

Dispatches on the Red Dress by Rowan Rheingans at the Storytelling Centre, is one of the increasing number of productions coming from the folk scene that meld theatre, storytelling and music; it can certainly hold its head up with the best of those.

Multi-instrumentalist and singer Rheingans, who has performed with her sister Anna and in Songs of Separation as well as the excellent Lady Maisery, has created this production with Liam Hurley. Based on stories from her family and featuring songs from her upcoming debut solo album The Lines We Draw Together, the main thread is about her grandmother growing up in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

Rowan Rheingans. Pic: Ron Milsom

You are probably making assumptions about the subject matter, but one of the most striking things about a beautifully put together narrative is the way it subtly confounds expectations. The reasons for the place on the outskirts of her grandmother’s home being called ‘the field of misery’, or the significance of the red dress of the title, may not be exactly what you are expecting, and it would be a shame to give too much away.

Not that this story depends on suspense; rather, it is a gorgeously human rumination on past follies and present preoccupations, and how the one informs the other. Staging is minimal, with a selection of instruments – which Rheingans plays with skill and authority – ringing the performance area.

It is perhaps an unfortunate part of the folk scene that musicians are expected to have a definite and compelling between-songs presence. several comedians have of course started in folk clubs, but on the flip side a singer as great as June Tabor is often undervalued because she seems less at home with being a patter merchant.

superbly structured

The move that some singers have made into through-written stage shows is therefore not surprising. It would seem wise not to mention Karine Polwart’s mighty Wind Resistance, despite the obvious link with Hurley having worked on that production too; however, the comparison need not be avoided, which shows how much impact this has. What is particularly noteworthy is that there is nothing remotely thrown-together about this; it is superbly structured both dramatically and musically.

Rowan Rheingans. Pic: Ron Milsom

Rheingans has a calm, apparently natural presence, and her storytelling holds the piece together brilliantly. Her singing, meanwhile, is gloriously free of histrionics. The songs are affecting and plangent, but never yield to melodrama. Subtle use is made of looped, pre-recorded sound, and the overall effect is sparse yet beautiful.

As yet, Rheingans does not yet always command the stage as she might, and there is a slightly tentative nature to some of the movement, but this may be rectified as the show develops. Familiarity with the songs might also help, as there is currently a slight one-paced feel to them; the most emotional piece of the evening may be an instrumental fiddle piece.

This is not to say that there is anything unfinished about the production at the moment; merely that what is already very, very good has the potential to be utterly unmissable. As it is, this wonderfully conceived, staged and performed piece is already pretty close to essential.

Running time: One hour and 20 minutes (no interval)
Scottish Storytelling Centre, 43-45 High St, EH1 1SR (Venue 30)
Thursday 15 – Monday 26 August 2019
Daily (except 20) at 6.00 pm.
Tickets and details:

Artist website:
Facebook: @rowanrheingansmusic
Twitter: @RowanRheingans


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