Doctor Johnson Goes to Scotland, Traverse Theatre, Review

Rating (out of 5)
Show details
A Play, a Pie and a Pint, Oran Mor with Traverse Theatre
James Runcie (writer) Marilyn Imrie (director), Andy Cowan (sound design), Ross Kirkland/Chris Reilly (lighting design) Johnathan Scott (designer)
Lewis Howden (Samuel Johnson), Simon Donaldson (James Boswell / Bonnie Prince Charlie), Gerda Stevenson, Morna Young, Ciaran Alexander Stewart (other roles)
Running time

‘Doctor Johnson Goes to Scotland’ is a fairly self-explanatory piece of titling, and, as they say, it does what it says on the tin, although perhaps a little too much.

Within the hour-long traffic of the stage that the Play, Pie and a Pint formula determines, we are given a very much whistle stop version of that most familiar of travel memoirs, the Tour of the Hebrides (not to mention other parts of Scotland) undertaken by pioneering lexicographer and early hack writer, Doctor Samuel Johnson and his almost-as-famous biographer James Boswell.

Lewis Howden packs a good deal into his interpretation of the good Doctor, managing the reprise of several Johnsonian aphorisms with both due aplomb and the appropriate admixture of jovial avuncularity and grating entitlement that annoyed the French and Germans as much as the Scots (and in some instances may continue to do so).

Simon Donald is an able foil – the term is used advisedly – to his unconsciously patronising travelling companion, patient with the latter’s failures as a gracious guest, and fully supported by Gerda Stevenson, Morna Young and Ciaran Alexander Stewart, each in several roles. Although they work extremely well as an ensemble cast, one did wonder if the stage needed to be quite as crowded for so short a piece.

It’s here we approach the nub of this play’s problem, at least as far as this reviewer was concerned. Although the focus and principal work concentrated on the relationship between Johnson and Boswell, and, at least at some points, on that between Scotland and England, we spent too much time, perhaps, faithfully following the route of their peregrinations and encountering the various folk that they did, to the detriment of the play itself.

‘Doctor Johnson goes to Scotland’ visits as many themes as its eponymous subject appears to visit places, but as with Johnson and Boswell, do not stay long enough with any of them to do more than scratch the surface of their complexity. This is a pity, as in several instances, such as those of national identities, the de-population of the highlands, language and consciousness, there is enough material here for a play of greater length.

There is also humour, some of which works, though there is a tendency to rely on the audience’s own ambivalences, which can again work at times to the play’s advantage, but for this reviewer, not always. Praise, however for a brief roll call from the national cuisine, suggesting that the author, or someone, knows their Meg Dodds from their Sue Lawrence. This briefly shone a light in a direction beyond Johnson’s magnum opus that could yet be worth exploring.

Runs til 5th November