7 October 2007 The Sunday Times

Molly Sweeney/A Sheep Called Skye

Bladnoch Distillery, Wigtown, and touring. NTS review.

WHEN Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney played at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow at the end of 2005, it arrived without fanfare or fuss. Tucked away in the studio theatre, it was a low-key alternative to the mainstage family-friendly production of Charlotte's Web and to the many pantomimes in town. At that point, director Gregory Thompson was yet to be appointed to run the city's Tron Theatre and it would be several months before he and his lead actor, Cara Kelly, would be lauded in the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland.

But the glowing reviews came quickly and word got out that this unheralded production was something special. "The production got better and better as it went on," says Kelly, recalling that first run. "The intensity of it became something sacred. People were lining up afterwards to have a word."

The good news for audiences is that the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) has revived the show for a three-month autumn tour. Not only that, but the new production is being staged in a set with virtually the same dimensions as the Citizens' Circle Studio with its small audience sitting on four sides. "On the one hand, the Circle Studio is the worst theatre in the world to direct in," says Thompson. "It's unlike any other space and you have to find out how to work in it. On the other hand, it's fantastic, because the audience is right there."

Fulfilling its brief to reach the parts that other theatres can't reach, the NTS is touring Molly Sweeney and a new children's show, A Sheep Called Skye, to 22 towns and villages from Jedburgh to Auchtermuchty between now and December. Given that the typical community hall is better suited to hosting jumble sales than contemporary theatre, the six actors are travelling not only with the set, but the lights, gantry and even the seating. The reasons are practical, but it works out perfectly for the intimate scale of Molly Sweeney.

"We bought the seating in our first year because we knew it would come in handy for this purpose," says operations manager Ben Walmsley pointing at the hired truck parked outside the Bladnoch Distillery in Wigtown as the applause for the opening evening's performance of Molly Sweeney dies away. Friel's play is about the warm-hearted Molly who, despite being blind from early childhood, savours the world with great sensory relish. All the same, when her well-meaning husband investigates the possibility of curing her blindness, she goes along with his scheme, carried along by his enthusiasm and her own curiosity. The success of the operation brings with it a rush of elation until Molly realises she is an exile. Neither fully in the land of the sighted nor any longer in the home of her blindness, she suffers the inexpressible loneliness of a woman denied her sense of identity.

This, you might expect, would add up to a depressing night at the theatre, but thanks to Kelly's exemplary performance, it makes for a funny, humane and moving drama. Joined by Michael Glenn Murphy as her ebullient husband and Oengus MacNamara as the doctor seeking to rediscover his own place in the world, Kelly draws in the audience like close family members going on the same sad voyage of discovery. "Not everybody has experienced being blind or knowing anybody who's blind," says Kelly. "But it is about far more than that."

The close audience relationship was something Thompson developed as a result of working in the tiny Circle Studio. The play is written as a series of interlinked monologues and designed for a traditional proscenium arch theatre, but the director sensed he would have to loosen things up if it were to work on a smaller scale. The shape of the monologues remains, but in this production the three actors are forever intruding on each other's speeches, blurring the line between storytelling and dramatic action. "The script is structured for the actors to be sitting on a triangle of chairs all facing in the same direction," says Thompson. "But we didn't have the opportunity for that because of the nature of the space. The actor-audience relationship is the key to everything and we wanted to be able to reach everybody."

Kelly, who also starred in the NTS production of Elizabeth Gordon Quinn, agrees that getting the relationship with the audience right is paramount, arguing that a good play is one that reflects our shared experience of life. "Theatre should be something communal, you should be sharing some sort of human experience and audiences respond to the truth," she says. "When you get the truth as an actor, you feel it coming back at you from the audience."

Like the similar NTS tour last autumn when the award-winning children's show Gobbo hit the road along with the teen-friendly Mancub and an adaptation of Strindberg's class-war drama Miss Julie, this year's trek to the remoter parts of the country is also offering something for the children. A Sheep Called Skye is adapted by Nicola McCartney from the novel by SR Harris and tells the tale of a sheep brought up as a pet in an island bed-and-breakfast. Feeling the call of the flock, she suffers an identity crisis, leaves the funny foreign holiday-makers behind and sets out to find out who she really is.

Not unlike Molly Sweeney and her journey from the "home" of her blindness into the scary world of the sighted, Skye goes on a pastoral odyssey that takes her from a grungy-looking Jacob's sheep over the hill to a pair of snooty show sheep in far-away England, being co-opted as a gimmick by a souvenir salesman en route. Like all good odysseys, it's only at the journey's end that Skye, played by Ailie Cohen in and out of a knitted puppet headdress, realises she was most herself back at home where she started.

Both plays are performed with the audience of around 70 on four sides, creating an intimacy that suits the scale of the rural venues. Such intimacy doesn't come cheap, however. The costs of selling a show to a small audience in, say, Ullapool are much the same as selling it to a big city centre audience. "When we come into a small community like Wigtown we have to find out how to sell the tickets, if we can sell them and if we will know in advance that they will sell," says Roberta Doyle, the company's director of external affairs. "Everything we do in this community to sell 72 seats is identical to what we did to sell 15,000 seats for the Bacchae starring Alan Cumming and Tony Curran in the Edinburgh International Festival. The subsidy per head is disproportionately high, but that's what we're funded for."

The NTS is not profligate, however, and it makes sure it gets the most from the actors while they are on the road. Kelly, for example, acts in both shows, turning up as a variety of incidental characters in A Sheep Called Skye as well as in her pivotal role in Molly Sweeney. Other performers are involved in schools workshops and online blogs when they're not on stage. "They're really earning it," says Walmsley.

For Walmsley, whose key responsibility is plotting the tour and making sure the country is being covered, the challenges are often of a technical nature. The staging requires a minimum height of 3.5m, which ruled out a lot of the smaller village halls or, indeed, those with their own seating already installed. "It's actually nice to have that restriction," he says. "It forces us to focus on the venues that don't get theatre all year round. The main aim is to get the best quality work outwith the Central Belt of Scotland and giving people the chance to see it without travelling 200 miles."

© Mark Fisher 2007

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