Sunset Song

Oct 10 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩     Faithful

King’s Theatre Tues 7 – Sat 11 Oct 2014

Well put together and extremely well acted, Sell a Door and Beacon Arts Centre’s adaptation of Sunset Song is a neat piece of theatre but fails in the end to do justice to its source.

A scene from Sunset Song. Photo: Sell A Door

A scene from Sunset Song. Photo: Sell A Door

Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1931 novel tells of the effects of modernisation and the First World War on a community in his native North East. It remains surprisingly little known in England – a situation that may change with the release of Terence Davies’s upcoming film. However, in Scotland it is an acknowledged classic, and ‘the one everyone does for Highers’ – a status that threatens to overshadow the real power of what is an astonishing book.

By turns densely layered and fleetingly impressionistic, the novel is told largely through the interior monologue of Chris Guthrie as she grows into womanhood.  On stage, an entirely understandable desire to remain faithful to such a cherished work means that Alastair Cording’s adaptation is certainly a valuable resource for school parties, who will play a huge role in making a touring production of a favoured set text viable.

However, this means there has to be a great deal of exposition shared among the cast, which does not always sit easily. Furthermore, shorn of the book’s symbolism and mystery, the bare bones of the plot start to come across as melodrama.

For a stage production to be justified on its own terms, it needs to replace the poetry of the source with something intrinsically visual and dramatic, which does not always happen here.

a subtle, multi-layered Chris Guthrie

This is nothing to do with the standard of performance – the cast are all more than adequate. Alan McHugh’s monstrous depiction of Chris’s father John is the stand-out, but Rebecca Elise runs him close as a subtle, multi-layered Chris. Clare Waugh is heartbreaking as Chris’s mother Jean, while Sandy Nelson’s miller Long Rob is quietly effective. Craig Anthony-Ralston partially convinces as Ewan Tavendale, Chris’s sweetheart, but his character suffers from lack of development because of the telescoped narrative, with his motivations not being as clear as they could be.

A scene from Sunset Song. Photo: Sell A Door

A scene from Sunset Song. Photo: Sell A Door

It is this half-developed feel that stops the production, well staged as it is, from being more compelling. Morna Young’s music seems underused and a little tacked-on when, as she is obviously talented and the company contains more than one accomplished musical performer, it could have been a more integral part of the whole.

Similarly, Julie Ellen’s direction is a little too respectful and underplayed, when a more daring approach might have had more impact. Little touches of sound and light hint at a more imaginative approach but it verges on the cosy. And when a more visual, physical acting style is essayed towards the end, it seems too little, too late and lacking in conviction.

Jan Bee Brown’s set, a corrugated affair equal parts hillside, byre and WWI trench, is suitably impressionistic and perhaps suggests a way for a production to go – taking its lead from the book rather than following it closely.

Paradoxically, by trying to remain true to the source, this staging has failed to capture its essence, coming over at times like a staged version of Brodie’s Notes rather than a truly satisfying theatrical experience.

Running time 2 hours 25 mins including interval
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 7 – Saturday 11 October 2014
Evenings 7:30pm; Matinees Wed and Sat 2:30pm
Tickets from:
Tour website:


Sunset Song on tour:
7 – 11 October Edinburgh
Kings Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
21 – 25 October Glasgow
King’s Theatre
0844 871 7648 Book online
27 – 29 October Inverness
Eden Court Theatre
01463 234 234 Book online
5 – 8 November Dundee
Dundee Rep
01382 223530 Book online
10 – 13 November Aberdeen
His Majesty’s Theatre
01224 641122 Book online


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