Couthy and Canty – ‘The Yellow on the Broom’ at Dundee Rep

“Listen, Time passes”, wrote Dylan Thomas in his famous play for voices, Under Milk Wood, inviting his audience to sit and observe past lives at a comfortable remove from personal involvement in their affairs. Dundee Rep Ensemble’s production of Anne Downie’s The Yellow on the Broom, is an affectionate tale of travelling folk in 1930’s Scotland, and it similarly sits on the sidelines looking back, albeit in a more literal than literary manner.

The story, directed by Andrew Panton, revolves around the central character of Bessie Townsley, whose strong-willed younger self is played by Chiara Sparkes, while her past history is narrated retrospectively by an older, more philosophical Bessie, played by Ann Louise Ross. Sparkes’ Bessie is both outspoken and quite well-spoken for an uneducated traveller girl, while Ross is the articulate voice of experience.

This intimate play, with music and song, tries to tell us a lot of things at once about a young girl’s coming of age, changing times, human nature, authoritarianism, and a lost past. The common casualty throughout is freedom, both personal and societal. In our present time of accelerated change, The Yellow on the Broom pauses to gently remind us that someone, somewhere will get hurt in the blind rush towards the future.

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Bessie’s family, led with admirable stoicism by the worldly-wise and world-weary paterfamilias Sandy (Gary Mackay) and sharp-tongued mother Maggie (Beth Marshall), wander back and forth between the tattie howkin’ in Angus and the ‘Berry Fields o’ Blair’. On their way, they encounter hostility and hospitality in almost equal measure from the communities with whom they have intimate knowledge and long-standing acquaintance.

Round and around they wander, on Kenneth McLeod’s circular, time-travelling set featuring tree rings etched into the stage floor. Over rocks and stones they roam, over the hills and far away. The audience is tempted into a quasi-fantasy world of unfettered, carefree, freedom of movement, but the narrative progressively, and ominously, describes one run-in after another.

There are various contretemps including a sharp exchange of words with an overbearing laird, bothersome cops, belligerent farmers, prejudiced teachers, eccentric toffs and a wretchedly authoritarian priest. There is hardly a pillar of the establishment left to knock, but then again the downtrodden are spoilt for choice in that respect.

The Rep’s ensemble cast is given ample opportunity to display their versatility, not least because The Yellow on the Broom, cannily lit by Sinéad McKenna, is partly music-hall, part-couthy commentary, and part-canty comedy. Chiara Sparkes and Emily Winter were both especially eye-catching when given the opportunity to convey fidgety, flighty young characters through comedic movement and (barely contained) physical energy.

Elsewhere, there are Scottish, English and even French character vignettes from Barrie Hunter as a rich weirdo suffering from Scottishness, and Irene MacDougall playing multiple archetypes from farmer’s wife to French wife. Ross Baxter convinces as a cowardly cop, while John Kielty played several roles. Kielty also composed the warm and atmospheric music and songs that were stylistically reminiscent of another voice from the past, the fondly remembered Roy Williamson.

There is an obvious social commentary to be made in The Yellow on the Broom, and a serious one at that. Yet, the production rather skirts around contemporary attitudes towards travelling people who, in all their various incarnations, remain utterly despised (and threatened) across the UK and Europe.

Instead, it looks back not with anger, but with resignation, lamenting the passing of time and accepting that the changes, for good or ill, are inevitable. And if our conscience is to be pricked, then it is to be disturbed only gently.

There is an altercation involving Sandy and a policemen that threatens to have real edge, and it does bring institutional prejudice into sharp focus. Those moments are, however, relatively few, but if the play is short on a sense of risk, then it more than makes up for it with great pace, warm humour and a direct appeal to the emotions.

Michael Stephen Clark

The Yellow on the Broom, Dundee Rep Theatre 28 Aug – 22 Sep 2018 

https://www.dundeerep.co.uk/