Rob Drummond

Don’t. Make. Tea.


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Chris (Gillian Dean) is feeling understandably nervous. It’s the year 2030 and today she’s having her assessment. Chris has OPMD, which means that she is partially sighted, has trouble walking and is in constant pain. This rare condition is degenerative, so things are only going to get worse – but, under a recently implemented system, claimants are assessed ‘positively’, i.e. on what they can do rather than on what they can’t do.

The process will be depressingly familiar to those who have been through a PIP assessment. Points are awarded throughout the frustratingly opaque interview. If Chris scores five, she will be expected to take on part-time work. Score ten and she can go full-time! All Chris knows is that she has no money in her account and her electricity supply is set to switch itself off when the meter hits zero. She’s desperate. Meanwhile, her life is supervised by ‘Able’, an Alexa-like hub that offers a commentary on everything she says and does… and may just be capable of informing on her should she ever step out of line.

Enter Ralph (Aidan Scott), the sly, smirking interrogator who will determine Chris’s future. ‘We listened,’ he keeps telling her, and then proceeds to turn her words against her. His questions are cunningly designed to trip her up and he’s on to all the received wisdom that has served her up to now (‘be you on your worst day’; ‘don’t show them you can make a cup of tea’).

This clever and prescient piece from Birds of Paradise Theatre, written by Rob Drummond and directed by Robert Softly Gale, is designed to be as accessible as possible. Able’s irksome commentary acts as a kind of audio description, while on a huge TV screen that dominates one wall, Francis (the engagingly comic Emery Hunter) helpfully translates everything into sign language. An overhead video display also offers viewers the text. I’ve rarely seen audio-visual aids so skilfully integrated; indeed, they are characters in their own right.

It’s a show of two halves. The first is essentially a taut two-hander as Chris and Ralph go through the various hoops and hurdles of the assessment. The narrative becomes increasingly adversarial and the interview builds to a frantic conclusion. As the lights go down for the interval, I ask myself where this can possibly go next.

The second act is an entirely different kind of beast, a high-powered slice of farce as new figures appear, seemingly out of nowhere. It would be wrong to give too much away but there are some wildly funny moments here, though the piece never forgets that it has an important message about disability rights to get across – something it skilfully manages without thumping me over the head.

Don’t. Make.Tea. is a dystopian vision of an all-too credible near future, a play laced with dark humour and some genuine surprises. Cleverly crafted to be accessible to the widest possible audience, it’s an exciting slice of contemporary theatre.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Scenes for Survival


BBC iPlayer/YouTube

Scenes for Survival is a series of short digital artworks created by leading Scottish theatre and screen talent, co-produced by the BBC and the National Theatre of Scotland.

It’s a mixed bag, that’s for sure, a veritable cornucopia of ideas, all inspired by or relating to lockdown. Their variety is their strength; there is a sense of universality, of common suffering. Some of them are frustratingly short: the briefest of glimpses into a situation or psyche, and – inevitably – some are better than others, although they’re all high quality, as they should be, with actors, writers and directors of such calibre.

The obvious standout so far (they’re still being made) is Fatbaws, written by Douglas Maxwell and performed by Peter Mullan. It’s a simple, cheeky little idea – a man being bullied by the birds in his garden – but the writing is exquisite and Mullan’s performance is jaw-droppingly good, a masterclass in character acting. No mean feat when two of the characters are a crow and a pigeon.

I also like Larchview by Rob Drummond, where Mark “Ubiquitous” Bonnar plays a disgraced minister making a public apology for breaking lockdown rules. His progression from phoney contrition to peevish defensiveness is deftly conceived, and there’s redemption too, as he begins to hear the emptiness of his excuses, and a real sense of remorse emerges. It’s cleverly humanising – and Lord knows our politicians need a bit of that.

Alan Cummings stars in Johnny McKnight’s twisty three-parter, Out of the Woods. It’s a shaky hand-cam thriller, depicted as a series of FaceTime calls between a man and his mother and his child. He’s creeping through the woods to his estranged partner’s house; he’s picking up their daughter, but her other dad is not to know…

But honestly, even if these don’t appeal, there are so many to choose from, there’s something here for everyone. Retired Inspector Rebus (Brian Cox – not that one) puts in an appearance, courtesy of Ian Rankin, and there are contributions from many of Scotland’s best-loved creatives, including Val McDermid, Elaine C Smith and Janey Godley.

So, take a peek. See what tickles your fancy. Because strong original content has been a rarity for the past few months, and these are a real treat, as well as a vital documentation of our times.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Grain in the Blood


Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Grain in the Blood is the second play by Rob Drummond we’ve seen this week, but it’s so different from the rambunctious, slapstick humour of The Broons that it’s hard to believe it’s from the same pen. This is a clearly a playwright who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed, who likes to experiment with a wide range of forms and genres. And this is all to the good, because Grain in the Blood feels like a real one-off, a spare, stark, unnerving chiller that is at once contemporary and classical. Its remote farmland setting is precise and detailed – and yet it could be anywhere. The dialogue is taut and ultra-modern in style, all fragments and silences and unfinished thoughts – but it could be any time. This is a complex, angular, unwieldy play – and it’s fascinating to see the plot unfurl.

Sophia (Blythe Duff) is a retired vet. Her son, Isaac (Andrew Rothney), has been in prison for years, ever since he murdered his wife, Summer. Sophia lives on the family farm, with her sickly granddaughter, Autumn (Sarah Miele), and Summer’s sister, Violet (Frances Thorburn). Autumn is dying; she needs a kidney transplant to survive. Under the careful watch of his minder, Bert (a wonderfully monosyllabic John Michie), Isaac is released from gaol for a long weekend, to meet his daughter and make a decision: will he donate a kidney to help her live?

There’s a sinister atmosphere on stage throughout, an uneasy sense of what might come to pass, accentuated by the presence of the shotgun we know is in the chest, by the slaughtered lambs and the kitchen knives. And the verses, recited by Autumn, conjure up an ancient world of witchcraft and folklore and bloody rituals.

The tension is palpable. There’s a school group sitting in front of us in the auditorium, and they’re so invested in the action that they gasp out loud as one, breathe out a collective “no” as the final plot point is revealed.

Orla O’Loughlin’s direction is subtle: these are actors who have been told to play the silence, explore the stillness, consider proxemics and use the edges of the stage – and this all helps authenticate that all-pervading sense of dread. Autumn’s bedroom, revealed by sliding walls at the back of the living room where everything else takes place, looks like the final picture on an advent calendar: the double doors opening to show an ethereal figure poised between life and death, bathed in yellow light and speaking truths. This potty-mouthed youngster is the moral heart of the play.

Grain in the Blood does what the best theatre should: it entertains, of course, but it also makes you think. It raises questions, demands answers. This is one I highly recommend.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

The Broons: Maggie’s Wedding


The King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

The Broons are a much-loved Scottish institution. It’s hard to believe that, as a popular comic strip,  they have featured in The Sunday Post since 1936 – which makes this theatrical celebration an 80th anniversary event. Written by Rob Drummond and directed by Andrew Panton, it was originally commissioned and developed by Sell A Door Theatre Company and as you might expect, given the subject, there’s a robust cartoonish feel to the show. Maw and Paw Broon (Joyce Falconer and Paul Riley) preside over their working class family in the fictional town of Auchentogle, with real pride and plenty of love. As the title might suggest, the events of the play lead up to the marriage of Maggie (Kim Allan) to the (unseen) Cameron. But Maw doesn’t much like the idea of her little princess leaving the family home – and when she finds out that other members of the family are also planning to move away, she quickly takes steps to ensure that such a thing will never happen…

I’ll be the first to admit that having only recently moved to Scotland, I really don’t have much of a backstory with these characters and consequently, many of the ‘in’ jokes (which elicited roars of appreciative laughter from tonight’s audience) went completely over my head; but there was still much to enjoy here, particularly Laura Szalecki’s portrayal of the man-hungry Daphne and Duncan Brown as the monumentally thick Englishman, Jock Badge, who thinks the term ‘4 to 6 years’ on a jigsaw puzzle is an indication of how long it might take him to put it together.

As events scamper joyfully along,  the actors slip effortlessly from character to character and, since this is a play with music, just about everyone bashes out a tune on some kind of musical instrument at various points in the proceedings. The overall effect is charming and though I don’t really agree with the play’s ultimate message – that it’s better to stay with what you know than to seek out new experiences – it certainly chimes with a story that has remained totally unchanged for so very long. And who could fail to enjoy the rousing singalong at the conclusion that pays tribute to a whole host of Scottish talent from The Waterboys to The Bay City Rollers?

If you’re a fan of these fictional folk, you certainly won’t want to miss this; and, if you’re merely curious as to what the fuss is all about, you’ll still be in for an entertaining night.

4 stars

Philip Caveney