The Hearth

Aug 14 2023 | By More

★★★★☆      Moving reflections

Scottish Storytelling Centre (Venue 30): Fri 11 – Sun 27 Aug
Review by Allan Wilson

In The Hearth from Brite Theater, multi-instrumentalist and storyteller Tom Oakes uses the hearth; that place in the centre of a home where a fire is traditionally lit, to spark a series of moving reflections on life and memory.

Oakes welcomes the audience with a beautiful piece played initially on flute, with a hint of echo, but soon joined by a pre-recorded guitar sample and the inimitable voice of Dolina MacLennan, reading the first of a series of poems by Kolbrún Björt Sigfúsdóttir, who provided dramaturgy for the performance.

Tom Oakes in The Hearth. Pic: Brite Theatre

As the music fades into the background, Oakes begins to talk about the significance of the hearth, as the traditional centre of the home, where people would gather to keep warm, to eat and drink and to share stories, but it is also where ash and dust collects as a reminder of past lives.

He uses the Hearth as a starting point for a series of moving reflections on the lives of relatives and friends many of whom have died, but are still remembered with affection.

Oakes has been looking into his family history as part of this project, making unexpected discoveries and finding answers to puzzles from his past. His great aunt Beryl died recently in her 90s – sad, but she had enjoyed a good life and had had enough. She never married, becoming the headteacher of a school and living a very active life.

subversive poems

In retirement, she used her savings to pay for great care at home, and when she entered hospital for a period before she died, she delighted in directing the staff. Oakes composed Queen of Leeds, a lively flute tune to suit her personality.

Other relatives from the past in Oakes’ thoughts included Dodo, his mother’s great aunt, remembered for sending books of subversive poems to children and Gertie, who had been a peaceful activist for Irish Home Rule. He may have inherited his love for Irish music from Gertie.

Tom Oakes in The Hearth. Pic: Brite Theatre.

Joe Scurfield, killed in a hit and run accident in 2004, was also celebrated. Oakes knew him as a friend and fellow-musician. Scurfield was also a committed socialist, juggler and topiarist, shaping a garden hedge to form a steam train. He filled cassette tapes with hundreds of tunes from across the world, which are now available from Joe Scurfield’s Tune Bank.

Angus Grant, who died in 2016, is another musician that Oakes remembers fondly, particularly through playing together at Festivals and sessions. Grant caused festival organisers consternation by insisting on payment in cash, and on all correspondence for him being addressed to The Shore Bar in Leith.

Oakes demonstrates his musical skills in the bridges between the stories, switching between flutes, guitar and bouzouki on top of the accompanying multi-track recordings. He carefully creates space for MacLennan’s readings of Sigfúsdóttir’s poetry within these musical interludes.

gentle wit

Oakes is continuing his research into his family and reflected on the need to share stories about amazing people.

There is a history of folk musicians starting to intersperse songs and tunes with stories, initially as cover for re-tuning an instrument in some cases and gradually cutting back on the music as they become more expert storytellers – think of Billy Connolly.

Oakes may be starting to take tentative steps in this direction. He is not a new Connolly, but he tells his stories with a gentle wit, warmth and respect for his subjects that encourages full engagement from the audience.

Running time: one hour (no interval)
Scottish Storytelling Centre (Netherbow Theatre), 43-45 High Street, EH1 1SR (Venue 30)
Friday 11 – Sunday 27 August 2023 (not 14, 18)
Daily (not 14, 18) 12.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Tom Oakes links

Twitter: @TomOakes

Facebook: @tomoakesmusic

Instagram @tomoakesmusic




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