Ali Watt

The Stamping Ground

24/05/23

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

As jukebox musicals go, The Stamping Ground – inspired by the back catalogue of the near legendary (and now, sadly defunct) Gaelic rock band, Runrig – is more coherent than most. Writer Morna Young has skilfully repurposed twenty of the band’s songs into the story of a community of contemporary villagers struggling to save their way of life.

Euan (Ali Watt) is the author of a series of bodice-ripping novels set in the Scottish Highlands, but his career has stalled. After his teenage daughter, Fiona (Caitlin Forbes), is beaten up by a gang of bullies, he and his wife, Annie (Jenny Hulse), decide to relocate from their home in London to Glenbeag, (‘Little Valley” in Gaelic), the remote village where they were raised, and where his widowed mother, Mary (Annie Grace), still lives. But Euan is horrified to discover that Mary is now close friends with Summer (Naomi Stirrat), the daughter of the man who, years ago was responsible for Euan’s father’s death.

The family have arrived at a turbulent time for the village. The local inhabitants, who have already lost their cafe and post office, are now reeling from the news that their beloved pub may be the next thing to go, repurposed into holiday flats for visiting tourists. They all put their heads together to think of ways to raise money and it’s Annie who comes up with the idea of hosting a harvest festival. But when bad weather intervenes, its clear that a solution to the problem is not going to be easily found…

The Stamping Ground is, quite simply, a love letter to Scotland, a paean to the concept of people’s relationship to the land in which they live. It’s bold and vivacious, filled with likeable characters and fuelled by a mixture of plaintive melodies and rousing reels powered along by Stuart Semple’s propulsive drumming, John Mckenzie’s guitar and John Kielty’s keyboards. Members of the talented cast regularly grab other instruments to augment the songs as the story unfolds. While events occasionally come perilously close to sentimentality, I’d be lying if I denied filling up during Summer’s emotive ballad about leaving her friends – and, likewise, if I denied laughing out loud at some of the villager’s mischievous banter.

There’s a lot more here to enjoy. Kenneth McLoud’s fabulous set design, centred around the broken remains of an ancient standing stone, is a particular delight, while Jade Adams choreography and Luke Kernaghan’s direction keeps the whole enterprise bubbling to its stirring conclusion. By the end of the night the audience is on its feet clapping joyfully along to a rousing rendition of Loch Lomond.

The Stamping Ground is Scottish to its roots and never shies away from proudly saying so.

4 stars

Philip Caveney