**** (4 stars)
Stolen Elephant Theatre’s Tam O’Shanter, Tales & Whisky, which celebrates the poems and songs of Robert Burns alongside re-tellings of classic Scots folk tales, was first seen in the Edinburgh Fringe this year, and came to Musselburgh as part of the Saltire festival.
Shian Denovan, Catherine Bisset, Karen Bartke and Andy Dickinson were joined by musicians Douglas McQueen Hunter and Douglas Caird who perform as The Court of Equity, celebrating Burns’ songs, when they’re not part of the folk rock band The Picts.
The Brunton’s Venue One is a large and versatile auditorium, which was packed for the recent National Theatre of Scotland show Enough of Him. The wide spacing of the seats and their distance from the performing area [and the excessively enthusiastic air-conditioning] meant that the cast had to work harder to establish a rapport with their audience than they would have had to in a more intimate venue – but they did an superb job and kept us well entertained.
We were given very lively renditions of tales about the Witch of Fife, whose Guid Man was at first tolerant of her wild behaviour but came to an unpleasant end when he tried to join in; the Carter of Dunlop who went to extreme lengths to discourage upstarts challenging his monopoly of carting in the local area; and the eerie tale of the water elves who lived in the Haunted Ships.
Two of Rabbie Burns’ most famous poems – Death and Dr Hornbook, the Address to the Deil – were delivered with gruesome Gothic gusto: but the high point of the evening was Shian Denovan’s mesmerising performance of Tam O’ Shanter which nearly brought the house down and received the loudest and most enthusiastic applause of the evening.
Between all these the two Douglases performed a number of classic Burns songs – Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willie, Ca’ the yowes to the knowes, Tibbie Fowler, Corn rigs and barley rigs, and John Anderson, my jo, my John – with a captivatingly lively twist to them that invited us to join in and clap: had we not been seated so respectably, I’m sure many of us would have got up and danced. Guitarist Douglas sang and kept a strong rhythm going, while Duggi’s fingers flew about his piano accordion keyboard and gave us some beautifully decorated solo verses. He also chilled our spines with an account of how he came to compose his piece the Saddlewood Chase – it’s a wonder we had the courage to leave the safety of the Brunton and venture out into the dark night!
I can quite see why Tam O’Shanter, Tales & Whisky was such a success in the Fringe! Those who’d come with ‘hard copy’ tickets were able to claim a free whisky in the interval – alas, I wasn’t so lucky, having failed to collect a ticket before the show: I’ll know better next time! With or without the alcoholic stimulus, this was a rare evening’s entertainment, greatly appreciated by the audience. I’ve searched in vain to find a listing with tour dates, but did notice that the show will appear at the Traverse in Edinburgh in January. Make an effort, search it out, and have a grand evening getting better acquainted with these wickedly entertaining works.
Tam O’Shanter, Tales & Whisky, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, Run ended.