The Finborough Theatre’s season themed around the independence referendum, Scotland Decides 2014, continues with this pair of excellent burlesques from writer and performer Alan Bissett. He has been one of the most interesting figure in the independence debate: while he initially came to prominence writing novels like Death of a Ladies’ Man set in a hedonistic and dissolute Glasgow, for the last couple of years he has been a figurehead for National Collective, a group of artists campaigning on the Yes side and has been one of the most active figures on the scene.
The evening is made up of two parts. The first part is an extract from The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant, which imagines an Extraordinary General Meeting of Scotland’s mythological creatures in the face of possible independence. They see it as a existential threat: an independent Scotland would move forward and leave them behind. So we get the various forces that would persuade Scots to vote: the banshee’s appeal is to our grief of our shared war dead; the selkie seducing us with British culture. Finally the terrifying Lord Black Donald who shouts down any positive hopes for the future with ludicrously doom laden prophecies before leading the audience in a chant of “TOO WEE, TOO POOR, TOO STUPID”. (It’s meant to be a parody, I guess, but to be honest he didn’t seem too far off the more forthright side of the Better Together campaign.)
It’s a very funny piece and made me keen to see the full version, but at the same time it’s a pretty easy target: I think it would be hard for anyone who isn’t Alistair Darling to look on the No campaign and think that it played to Scots’ better natures. With Jock: Scotland on Trial he deals with a thornier and less easily resolvable one. Complete with see you Jimmy hat Bissett is joined on stage by the bowler-hatted Stephen Omer and through a series of funny skits and very serious reading they investigate a case for and against Scotland’s complicity in the crimes of empire. It’s well done and intelligent, but part of me as a supporter of independence was wary of this tack: there’s a danger that raking over the imperial coals can just turn into England-blaming though Jock for the most part manages to navigate this carefully.
It’s good to report that some of the loucheness of Bissett’s novels can be felt in both of these pieces. For one thing it’s a late performance: it was meant to start at 10pm, but we didn’t get in til 10.30. The Finborough as well as being one of the best theatres in London is also one of its best pubs, so, for all the problems the late start caused in terms of trains home, it helped loosen the atmosphere by making sure everyone had one drink more than they should. While he’s writer by trade under Cheryl Martin’s direction you can see that he’s also a gifted performer with an easy manner on stage and a fine sense of comic timing. On tonight’s evidence you hope he continues on stage, whichever way it goes on Thursday.