Mary Woodward Review

The Sweetest Growl, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Review:

The Sweetest Growl part of A Play, A Pie & A Pint

***** (5stars)

One completely unexpected bonus of coming regularly to PPP is being educated in Scottish culture and history – in this instance learning about Mary McGowan, the jazz singer from the Gorbals who rose to fame with the Clyde Valley Stompers, sang with Louis Armstrong, knocked Doris Day off the no. 1 spot in the charts, and then gave up what promised to be a stellar career to be a wife and mother back in Glasgow.

In this excellent play by Claire Nicol, Mary [played and sung magnificently by Elaine C Smith] has agreed to sing at the Stompers’ reunion concert: she’s sitting in her dressing room, wracked with nerves and wondering why on earth she ever agreed to do the gig.  In comes Kate Tierney, her best friend from school, who’s been instrumental in getting Mary to consider singing again.  An extremely stilted and edgy conversation over the teacups hints at past conflict and leads into reminiscence: the first time Mary sang in school, when she was slapped down in no uncertain terms by the dominie “you want to be a singer? Sit down and don’t be so stupid”; the support and encouragement her father gave her; singing to her nurse mother’s patients; and winning the talent competition that won her the engagement with the Stompers.

Two years on tour, and Kate is living vicariously through Mary, loving all the famous people she’s meeting, envying her the glamour and fame.  Mary tries to tell her that it’s bloody hard work and not easy being the lone girl among a bandful of men, but Kate, who would have given anything to have had Mary’s opportunity, can’t hear what she’s saying: she certainly can’t understand why Mary would decide to give it all up and marry her sweetheart Bob – she never wanted the money, the glamour and the fame: all she wants is a home, a husband, and weans…  At the wedding, a drunken Kate tries to get Mary to sing: she doesn’t want to, and the quarrel which began when Mary told Kate she was stopping singing escalates past the point of no return.

Back to the stilted teacup conversation.  Kate finally apologises for breaking their friendship, and Mary explains that I sang as long as I could: in those days it was impossible for a woman to have a home and a career, and she didn’t want to go the way she saw the other female singers going.  Bob in his own way apologises too – he was so busy thinking about what was best for their relationship he didn’t pay enough attention to what was best for Mary – and encourages her to sing with the Stompers again.  Back in the dressing room, Kate encourages Mary, who reveals her terror – not that she won’t be able to sing, but that she’ll be torn by regrets for having given it up: out she goes into the spotlight – and it’s as if she’s never been away…

Hilary Lyon was splendid as Kate – desperately wanting to succeed, and always having to settle for being second best, and incidentally displaying her not inconsiderable musical talent.  George Drennan was splendid as the Stomper’s trumpeter Ian Menzies [and his brother Bob, who married Mary], the vinegar-supping dominie and, in a brilliant scene, not only Mary’s ukulele-playing father but also [with the help of some nifty wig/ nurse’s hat holding from Kate] Mary’s mother as they argued over their daughter’s desire to sing.  All three – with yet more wigs – briefly appeared as three of the Beatles, who were the supporting act when the Stompers played the Cavern in Liverpool… and shining through above all the rest, the incomparable Elaine C Smith, whose talent is awesome and whose singing voice can raise the rafters with the best of them.  We could have listened to her for hours – her final numbers were all too short, and the applause was warm and enthusiastic.

The show’s not only highly entertaining, but also gives food for thought – how many other women musicians have been forgotten, how many had to give up their dreams because they couldn’t – weren’t allowed to – try to reconcile the demands of home and family with the need to express themselves through music? The Sweetest Growl is on for the rest of the week – give yourself a treat, take a walk down memory lane or discover yet another amazing part of Glasgow’s musical history: today’s show was a sell-out, and tickets will be going fast!

The Sweetest Growl part of A Play, A Pie & A Pint Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh run ends Sat 19th. for tickets go to: http://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event/ppp-the-sweetest-growl

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