Sunset Song

Nov 15 2018 | By More

★★★☆☆   Pacey

Church Hill Theatre: Wed 14 – Sat 17 Nov 2018
Review by Thom Dibdin

Leitheatre’s production of Lewis Grassic Gibbons Sunset Song burls along at pace and with great vitality at the Church Hill Theatre, where is playing to Saturday.

The novel is presented here in a new and very comprehensive stage adaptation written specifically for the company by Jonathan North. Director Stephen Hajducki ensures that both the flow of the story of Chris Guthrie never falters and that her tale of rural life in Aberdeenshire in the early 20th century comes across with real clarity.

Grant Jamieson, Ruth McLaren, Tim Foley and Nicole Irvine. Pic: Marion Donohoe

It is an admirable achievement, with Nicole Irvine as Chris Guthrie growing from a naive, relatively care-free child as her family first take up a farm in the Howe of the Mearns in 1911, through to the end of the 1914-18 war as a young war widow.

Irvine gives a strong sense of a young woman who, modern for her time, favours education and dreams of the escape it can bring – while at the same time having a growing affection for her roots in the farmland and hills of the Mearns. She is particularly effective at reflecting that tension in the earlier scenes when all options seem open to her.

Thanks to a nicely judged set design, the standing stones which have stood above the farm, looking over the land as people have come and gone for two thousand years, look out over the play. A constant reminder of what is permanent and what is not.

Hajducki makes good use of the large company at his disposal. There are notable performances from Tim Foley and Ruch McLaren as Chris’s father John Guthrie and his seemingly always pregnant wife Jean, as well as Grant Jamieson as Chris’s slightly younger brother Will.

a clear, strong bond

Foley makes Guthrie’s underlying viciousness clear, not to mention his conflict between religion and emotion. There’s a clear, strong bond between mother and daughter, and a similar sense of understanding between the two siblings. Although Chris’s friendship with her neighbour Marget Strachan (Amber Thomson) is the strongest of all.

The gossips at work. Pic Marion Donohoe

Around them, in the quick-change rush of scenes, the likes of Dionne Wilson and Charles Jones as Aunt Janet and Uncle Tam, do what is necessary.

Martin Dick produces an increasingly believable performance as Will’s friend Ewan Tavendale, who comes courting and ends up marrying Chris. Although his return on leave during the war is not the chilling event it might – and probably should – be.

It is a case of understanding what is going on, but not being hugely emotionally engaged with the events. Which is the real difficulty with the whole production. It skims along so fast that the whole first act has a feeling of a “previously on Sunset Song” style recap of events to bring you up to speed.

The story is all there, often thanks to a strong quartet of nosey, gossiping villagers played by Lynne Morris (Mrs Mutch), Irene Cuthbert (Mistress Munro), Ruth Murphy (Mrs Ellison) and Debs May (Mrs Garthmore). They do help provide a sense of the hypocritical and judgemental village mentality and, as a chorus, help flesh out the plot. But never enough to do more than understand it.

lack of engagement

The consequence of this speed is twofold. Without understanding the underlying conflicts, decisions seem easily won. Notably Chris’s momentous one not to leave the farm. While there is a curious lack of engagement which distances the production from its audience, never bringing them in to understand its tragedy.

Nicole Irvine as Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song. Pic Marion Donohoe

Even when the burl does calm down a little in the second half, the events on which it does dwell do not really help us to engage with the characters as they might.

The only time that this feels as if it is going to get to the nub of the matter is in the church. Alan Jeffreys is a solidly austere Rev Gibbon – his quoting of the Song of Solomon particularly lascivious, but the moment passes and time constraints mean that it doesn’t ever reflect properly on the frisson of sex and sexuality which is there but goes unexplored.

The second time comes at the production’s end, with the Reverend Colquhoun’s great passionate speech about the land, what changes and what endures, which takes place as the sun sets on the standing stones – now a war memorial.

It is staged well enough, and delivered with clarity by Mike Paton. But this key speech needs real drama at its core and it simply does not resonate as it might.

Running time two hours and 15 minutes (including one interval)
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Wednesday 14 to Saturday 17 November 2018
Evenings Wed – Fri: 7.30pm; Matinee Sat: 2.30pm.
For tickets:  Book here.

Mike Paton and the Sunset Song Cast. Pic Marion Donohoe


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

Comments are closed.