• iangregson

Mother Glasgow: A Review of National Theatre of Scotland's Orphans...


If you had asked me which Scottish film was to be made into a musical, Peter Mullan's Orphans would have been just about my last guess. Even Trainspotting seemed more likely. But that's exactly what the National Theatre of Scotland have done, and they have not only embraced the darkness of the original, but have taken everything up a notch. Orphans is one of my favourite films, so there was some trepidation before the curtain raised. I need not have worried.


We are introduced to the children of the Flynn family who are mourning the death of their mother. With the funeral the following morning they have to survive just one night before they can bury her in peace. But emotions are running high and each Flynn experiences a dark night of the soul before day breaks. Older brother Thomas is determined to keep his mother company as she lays in the chapel over night, but not before kick starting events with his unusual choice of song at the local pub's karaoke.


Adopted son Michael goes to defend his brother's honour and is badly injured as a result, leading to young John Flynn roaming the streets out for revenge. Meanwhile, their sister Sheila is experiencing her own night of new experiences, meeting unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places, cut from her mother's apron strings and separated from her siblings. From there it's an emotional rollercoaster as fights are fought, regrets are expressed, waltzers are spun, last orders are called, and there's a storm on the way. A Glasgow night out in a nutshell. It all builds to an ending which will, if you are like me, leave you emotionally burst. After a deserved standing ovation, and a final sing-a-long that was as hilarious as it was joyous, I had to take a moment to reflect on what we had all just witnessed.


Every aspect of the production is outstanding. The central cast are all exceptional. Robert Florence's 'Thomas' is central to much of the emotion of Orphans, but also provides most of the humour, and it is a role that requires fine balance between comedy and tragedy. Florence manages this beautifully allowing audiences to laugh at the absurd situations he finds himself in, but empathise in the knowledge that they are driven by grief. Florence is best known so far for his comedy roles, and this, his musical theatre debut, is a triumph. And boy can he sing!


Amy Conachan's 'Sheila' is arguably the heart of the film. Finding herself alone for perhaps the first time, she finds friendship and courage in the kindness of strangers, and Conachan conveys beautifully, and movingly, the frustrations and fears of Shiela's life so far, and the hope that the future now holds. The two other brothers, Dylan Wood's 'John' and Rueben Joseph's 'Michael', reflect each other as Michael is a glimpse of what the family want John to avoid, and in turn John has the possibilities that Michael was never afforded. Both Woods and Joseph give incredibly powerful and physical performances which are a reminder that, when done this well, nothing is as affecting as live theatre and the performers who make it.


The supporting cast take on multiple roles as well as being the ensemble, and all make their mark, but mention must be made of Harry Ward's 'Tanga' who is a great creation. He's a character anyone who has spent time in Glasgow's pubs will recognise, the sort who is as equally likely to greet you with a kiss or a kicking, The film Orphans introduced us to actors who would go on to do great things on stage and screen, including Douglas Henshall, Gary Lewis, and Stephen McCole. You have to think that greatness also awaits many of those in this cast, and it's going to be exciting to see just who that is.


The music by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly has Glasgow running through it, with songs which have echoes of some of the city's most iconic bands, particularly, and I would guess deliberately, Deacon Blue and The Blue Nile. It's a sign of a great musical when the songs are in your head hours afterwards. Maybe don't sing some of them out loud in public or at work. At best you might get some funny looks. At worst you'll get your jotters. With that in mind, mention must be made of 'Book Writer' Douglas Maxwell's dialogue which is as foul-mouthed as it is fantastic, embracing Glasgow's love for, and inventive use of, the profane.


The set is quite unlike any I have seen previously (I know I haven't been to the theatre for a couple of years, but this is not hyperbole). It's a character in its own right. Glasgow tenements which are moving, shifting, almost living things, and allowed for there to be constant movement as events unfold, revealing new stories behind their doors - the daily dramas of the people who live or work there. It is quite ingenious, and when the iconic Finnieston Crane makes an appearance it seemed close to getting its own cheer!


Everything in Orphans is brought together by director Cora Bissett, and what a job she has done. To present a piece of musical theatre so complex, and have an audience become so fully immersed, is quite incredible. At times I looked around and everyone was rapt at what they were experiencing. And it really was a shared experience, as the lights went up you could see tears in every eye, but a smile on every face. Most of the audience had just seen their city reimagined as never before. Glasgow has had great songs written about it, great novels, films, and plays, but now it has the musical it deserves.


Click here to find out more about Orphans and where you can see it.

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