The Electrifying Mr Johnston
*** (3 stars)
Mull Theatre was established in 1966 and has been touring productions throughout Scotland since the 1990s, bringing new theatre to the smallest and most remote venue. Tonight the company was at the Brunton Theatre with their show about the man who brought hydro-electricity to the north of Scotland – “power from the glens, light to the glens” – Thomas Johnston. He was a town councillor for Kirkintilloch, was elected to the Westminster Parliament and became a member of Churchill’s War Cabinet in 1941. Largely forgotten today, he was also responsible for starting organisations which have become Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Visit Scotland, and for moving the Forestry Commission from London to Scotland.
Earlier in his life, Thomas Johnston wrote a scathing condemnation of the Scottish landed gentry – Our Scots Noble Families – in which he attacked the notion that Scottish wealth and power should be held by a few people taking advantage of everyone else living on the land. Playwright Robert Dawson Scott, intrigued by a reference to his views in an article about land reform by Lesley Riddoch, investigated the man and his history, and ultimately produced this show.
It’s an interesting piece, though I can’t say that it zings with dramatic action. Political arguments MacKenzie. These are interspersed with short scenes and one-sided phone conversations from which we gather the progress of and opposition to the scheme. Stephen Clyde plays Johnston; Alan MacKenzie plays the [fictional] Sandy MacKenzie, an ardent Labour supporter, initially a student in Glasgow prevented by ill-health from joining the fighting, who becomes a journalist. He observes and questions Johnston’s progress politically and morally while Beth Marshall plays everyone else with an impressive array of accents – a very gung-ho and obsessively English secretary in Churchill’s office, a Very Noble Scotswoman organising landowners’ resistance to the schemes, the editor of the Inverness Chronicle whom Johnston wants to support the schemes; the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sandy MacKenzie’s Highland mother, Johnston’s own secretary and even her majesty the Queen.
Thomas Johnston comes over as someone who believes in his mission to improve the lives of Scots people living in remote areas and reduce the flow of younger people away from their homes: not only will hydro-electric schemes bring electricity to the remotest crofts and glens, but the improvements will encourage industry into these remote areas. What is interesting to observe is the amount to which Johnston is prepared to compromise his principles and fudge the edges of morality in order to achieve his aims [“for the greater good”], and how much his violent opposition to the studs quo – the ‘Noble Families’ – is tempered or watered down by his need to get them to agree to having the hydro-electric schemes on their land. He never accepted honours or financial reward for his work. Does this make him a saint or a sinner? How far does the end justify the means?
The audience warmly applauded the end of the first half of the programme and were invited to return after the interval for a q&a session about the play they’d just seen, and for some bite-sized excerpts of new plays and works-in-progress. I have to confess I went home to my bed.
This was an interesting piece about a man whom the author views as one of Scotland’s great unsung heroes – maybe you needed to be a Scot, with a better appreciation of Scotland’s recent history, fully to understand Johnston’s significance? Or maybe the play contains so much information that it’s hard to digest, and not easy to grasp quite how much his principles were bent in order to achieve his goals? I’m glad I’ve seen the play, I’m glad I know more about the man, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity of an early night…
The Electrifying Mr Johnston, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh Run Ended.
Review by Mary Woodward