Stories of the Sea

Jun 14 2017 | By More

★★★★☆    Factual

Leith Dockers Club: Tue 13 – Thurs 15 June 2017
Review by Thom Dibdin

There’s a braw bundle of insight to be had in Citadel Arts Group’s double bill of plays that explore some of the varying aspects of the women of Leith’s relationships with the sea.

In Dazzle, inspired by the Dazzle ship which was at Leith Docks as part of last year’s Arts Festival, playwright Alan Mountford depicts the life Eva Mackenzie from North Berwick, who studied art in Edinburgh and ended up working as a designer for the Admiralty in World War One.

Then in In Whit Aboot the Wimmen, Jim Brown imagines what it might have been like waiting for your man to come back from a year-long tour on a whaling ship. Focussing on the very last whaling expedition to return, in 1963.

Dazzle. Gregor Davidson, Megan Fraser, Charles Donnelly and Andrea McKenzie. Pic Eric Robinson

The details of Eva Mackenzie’s life before, during and after the First World War, makes for a great story. She studied at Edinburgh Art College, making friends with Newhaven artist Lizzie MaBride. They later signed up as an ambulance drivers, ferrying dying men back from the front. The horrors were too much and they returned to London – where they got work with Norman Wilkinson who was just setting up a workshop to prove his dazzle ship concept.

Mountford had open access to Eva’s letters home and has used them wisely. He has given Andrea McKenzie plenty of material to build a properly rounded character in Eva. McKenzie makes Eva sympathetic, but she is not all heroic strength and fortitude, and has her own human failings.

There’s less strength to his writing of Lizzie, however, and Megan Fraser does a superb job to overcome – and smooth-out – what can, at times, be a horribly lumpy script. But Mountford does a lot more right than that which could be improved, and she is a strongly sympathetic and engaging character with a bit of bite, too.

The concept behind the brightly-painted dazzle ships was not camouflage, but to trick the viewer’s eye as to the way they were moving through the sea. By creating an optical illusion, U-Boats needed longer on the surface to take a bearing before firing off their torpedoes.

a trio of very fine performances

Eva’s story serves a similarly distracting purpose, as the play focusses on the details of how Wilkinson – previously famous for a painting on the Titanic – came up with the idea, while protecting convoys in the Mediterranean.

Whit Aboot the Wimmen? Laverne Edmonds, Rachael Keiller and Kirsty Punton. Pic Eric Robinson

Director Liz Hare has finessed it well, however, and brings out a trio of very fine performances from her main characters. Charles Donnelly is particularly strong as Norman Wilkinson, finding a strong feeling of humility while not wavering from the social attitudes of men in that era.

Gregor Davidson is left to provide a series of pretty basic caricatures, from Lizzie’s sweetheart, a Newhaven fisherman Rab, to King George V. If he doesn’t play them only for their comedy, but there is certainly a glint in his eye.

Ultimately, this is a great story well told. If Mountford rather tries to cram too much surrounding fact in to his script and ends up with episodes rather than a narrative arc, it just indicates that there is material enough for a longer version.

There is an air of the bawdy Scots comedy to Jim Brown’s script for Whit Aboot the Wimmen. Which director Mark Kydd makes no attempt to dispel. In fact, he actively promotes it by casting Charlie West as young whaler Joe, who has had too much of a skin-full after being paid off from his first whaling expedition and is in the arms of a shore-side street girl rather than his fiancé, Annie.

colour and depth

West finds both comedy and a deeper meaning to the character, while playing drunk in the most convincing manner.

But as the title suggests, this isn’t about the men. Their characters in the play exist only to help provide colour and depth to the environment in which the two main characters exist.

That is Rachael Keiller as Annie, who is a grown woman but still lives at home with her mum – and dad when he is on shore – and who is beginning to have doubts about the path she has set out for herself in marrying a whaler and bringing up a family in Leith.

And Laverne Edmonds as her mum, who has a strongly traditional outlook on her life. But is still looking forward to her husband’s return with the anticipation of her own pleasures being satisfied – much to her daughter’s distaste.

the one to watch

Both put in great performances, but Edmonds is really the one to watch. She creates a properly nuanced character for the older woman of the piece, without dropping into cliches or playing it for laughs which aren’t there. Yes, she is unremarkable in many ways, but that is part of what is remarkable about it.

Charles Donnelly returns as Grandad, a foolish but happy many who is over-fond of recounting his ailments and pointing out that it’s a tot of rum which will help cure them. Donnelly makes the most of the role, playing the laughs but never hogging the stage.

The portrayal of Annie’s best pal Shona is less successful. Kirsty Punton looks more as if she had dropped in from a Jean Luc Godard movie rather than come to stay as her own father is on a drunken bender. But she does serve the dynamic well,

There is excellent direction from Kydd, who uses the split-level space well, and keeps the whole narrative clear, reminding that Leith was a place of hard physical work, of drinking, overt prostitution and violence.

Running time one hour 45 minutes.
Leith Dockers Club, 17–17a Academy Street, EH6 7EE
Tuesday 13 – Thursday 15 June 2017
Evenings Tue, Thurs: 7.30pm, Matinee Weds: 2.30pm.
Tickets: £8/£6 from; phone 01875 340 717; or on the door.
Facebook event page:

Citadel Arts Group on Facebook: citadelartsgroup.


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  1. Suzanne Senior says:

    I would agree with your review, Thom. I thoroughly enjoyed Dazzle and was totally convinced and, at times, moved by the acting. It was a great, inspiring story which was told well,

    I would also agree with your assessment of Whit Aboot The Wimmen. I enjoyed this too, but thought Kirsty Punton, as Shona, was too self-conscious in her role and overacted as a result. This didn’t sit well with the beautifully understated performances from Rachael Keiller and Laverne Edmonds.

  2. Alan Mountford says:

    Eva’s family were very pleased with the way I captured Eva’s character. And one of them thought that was the real Norman Wilkinson when he first appeared. So real was Charles portrayal of him.
    I disagree with your comments about Lizzie. This was EVA’S story not Lizzies and I only had 40 minutes to tell it in. Thanks for coming along and taking the time to review it
    Alan Mountford

  3. Sigrid Nielsen says:

    Thanks for your review, Thom!
    I think it’s worth saying more about Shona’s character and how it could be played.
    Whit Aboot the Wimmen is a very short play and there’s no time to tell Shona’s story. She reminds me of a lady from Leith who we interviewed for a living memory project who still had a strong singing (and speaking) voice in her eighties.
    I hadn’t thought of finding someone dressed in a French art cinema style in Leith in the 1960s, but Shona is supposed to have contacts in the music world in London.
    The story is about Mrs Cunningham and Annie, not about Shona – she has to be played differently from from the other two. I would say she stands for the stronger side of Annie’s character which is just emerging.