Tales from the Towpath

Jun 6 2024 | By | Reply More

★★★★☆  Water-born histories

Lochrin Basin: Thurs 23 – Sat 25 May 2025
Review by Thom Dibdin

It’s not often that productions begin with a safety warning – and the reassurance that you are unlikely to drown if the venue sinks – but not many productions are staged on a barge on the Union Canal.

In Tales from the Towpath, the Citadel Arts Group move away from their most recent historical plays examining personal histories of Leithers and Leith buildings, to turn their attention to the Union Canal. Their trademark portmanteau of immersive playlets is performed on the Lochrin Belle, as it chuffs sedately along the canal from the Lochrin Basin to Polwarth and back.

Jm Bryce as Hugh Baird in Union Canal. Pic Thom Dibdin

With several of Citadel’s regular writers involved, this is an entertaining and informative production. Director Mark Kydd makes clever use of the moving performance space. A quartet of performers give life and an emotional depth to historical figures who might seem obscure and dry when read about on the pages of history books.

The result is undoubtedly successful. A wee romance between an older couple provides amusing bookends to the main event, in Rhona McAdam’s Date on a Barge. Deborah Whyte is the understandably circumspect Annie, surprised to discover that the meal to which she has been invited by date Colin (a beautifully pompous Jim Bryce) is on a barge.

Between the set-up of this slight but comical romance, which allows the 20-strong audience to troop down onto the barge with the bemused Annie, the playlets focus on much less fanciful stories.


Bryce morphs most believably into Hugh Baird, the engineer who designed the canal, with Whyte as his wife Margaret in John Lamb’s The Union Canal.

Lamb draws out many of the details of construction with a subtlety – the key one being Baird’s desire to ensure the canal runs from Edinburgh to Falkirk without passing through any locks. The arrival of Leo MacNeil as a Highland navvy helps in the exposition.

Leo MacNeill in Fingal O Flaherty. Pic: Citadel.

Navvies, paid a shilling a week and drawn from young Irish men and Highlanders returned from Waterloo, provided most of the labour that built the canal. One of the most startling parts of the canal is underneath Prospect Hill, near Falkirk, where the influential William Forbes stopped the proposed route around the hill, as it would overlook his Callendar estate.

Jim Brown teases both these elements out well in Fingal O’Flaherty, with MacNeil as the unusually flamboyant Irish navvy, on the run from the British Government, who found it safer working under the hill than remaining in Dublin. Brown slips a huge amount of background detail into his script, with Bruce as the Ganger and Ashley Barlow as his secretary, Mary.

dubious circumstances

Arguably the best known story about the canal is that George Meikle Kemp, the architect behind the Scott Monument, drowned in the canal at Ratho in decidedly dubious circumstances.

William Haddow explores this event – and Kemp’s history – in The Monument with Bryce as Kemp’s ghost, while Whyte and Barlow enjoy themselves playing both the bargemen who found his body and the disdainful toffs who gave Kemp the commission.

Deborah Whyte, Ashley Balrow and Leo MacNeill in Unguarded. Pic: James Ellison

With the evolving date between Colin and Annie providing a buffer between the different playlets the turning point of the barge, just around Polwarth, provides an opportunity to step off the barge and into the 20th century with Hilary Spiers’ Unguarded, set during the Second World War at the North British Rubber company’s Fountainbridge Factory.

It was here that a landmark workers’ safety case was made, when factory inspector Miss Gladys Mitchell investigated an industrial accident of a girl working in the factory whose hands were caught in a roller. Whyte is a suitably perjink body as Mitchell, who followed the issue so tenaciously that the ensuing act is named after her.

Barlow is nicely conflicted as Laura, the wounded girl’s working partner, who wants justice for her best pal but not at the expense of causing trouble. It’s a nicely evolving piece which again drops plenty of information, while keeping the narrative flowing.

suitably comic effect

The last of the pieces jumps up to lived memory and the 1980s, in Rhona McAdam’s Rowing. This is set in the clubhouse of the St Andrew Boat Club, where the issue of women being allowed to row is causing considerable debate.

McAdam’s script flows nicely and to suitably comic effect, with Bryce as blinkered old duffer Hugh Perry Douglas who finds it hard to realise that women should be allowed to row. Barlow and Whyte are female members Eleanor and Jeanette, who make the case for inclusion blatantly obvious, with support from MacNeil’s Andrew.

Leo MacNeill, Ashley Barlow, Jim Bryce and Deborah Whyte on the Leamington Lift Bridge in a publicity shot for Tales from the Towpath. Pic: Citadel

The whole production is directed intelligently by Kydd, who copes admirably within the confines of the barge. Roddy Simpson’s sound design helps with a sense of place and similarly works with the strange performance space. Stewart Emm’s props and Susan Chaney’s costumes are appropriate indicators of the times of each piece.

Each of the pieces is necessarily slight and potentially overladen with information, but the writers all ensure that they smuggle the facts in within the confines of the narrative they have set.

At least two of these sketches could be worked up into something a lot more meaty, but the whole experience is something rather special and is certainly elevated by the use of the barge. So a huge bravo to Citadel and producer Liz Hare for having the vision to make the piece happen like this.

Tales from the Towpath is due to return to land with two performances at the Edinburgh Print Makers. Kydd will be re-directing the whole piece to fit the venue.

Running time: One hour and 20 minutes (no interval)
The Lochrin Belle. Union Canal Basin, Fountainbridge.
Thurs 23 – Sat 25 May 2024
Matinees: 2.30pm.
Run ended.

Edinburgh Printmakers, Castle Mills, 1 Dundee Street, EH3 9FP
Sun 9 and Sun 16 June 2024
Matinees: 2pm.
Details on Citadel’s Facebook page here.


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