Grassic Gibbon Review
Given Sunset Song appears the most popular Scottish novel, it’s no great surprise a biographical play about its author is titled Grassic Gibbon. Said title might confuse the less literary, but a largely middle-aged to elderly audience filling the Festival Theatre seemed to know what they were in for.
Michael Mackenzie and Vivien Heilbron supply the goods in fine professional style, turning in excellent performances over nearly two hours of what was in essence a staged reading of Jack Webster’s script.
We learnt a good deal of James Leslie Mitchell’s brief life and prodigious output over the time, delivered expressively by Heilbron and Mackenzie in turn-about style.
Whatever qualms there might have been about a veteran of Mackenzie’s years portraying a man who died in his thirties was quickly dispelled as he slipped into characterisation as easily as if it were a comfortable jacket.
Given that Mitchell’s output (as Mitchell) was considerably more than that as Gibbon, a lot of information is packed into the two hours traffic of the stage, to the point it feels a very busy crossing indeed.
What it feels as if it's missing is drama. Mitchell’s youthful suicide bid is mentioned, but not explored. The question of the origins of ‘Sunset Song’ (which arose partly from Mitchell’s own enigmatic preface) is not mentioned, and what must have been fierce personal struggle as a young writer with family dependent for much of his writing life on his wife’s earnings – a far more invidious situation then than now – is hardly explored.
These may seem cavils when so much of Mitchell’s life is offered, along with sections from Sunset Song and Grey Granite, ably delivered by Heilbron.
One’s respect for good acting increases as Mackenzie and Heilbron put gloss on what they have to work with, and take their audience with them most of the way, though at times it felt a fell sair trauchle ower the riggs of Blawearie’s parks.
Clearly built to tour, Grassic Gibbon will undoubtedly find audiences and delight many of them, but given the potential in the subject matter, this reviewer longed for mair gear in lesser bulk.
Copyright Bill Dunlop 2009
First published on EdinburghGuide.com 2009