A delicate whiff of carbolic greeted a capacity audience at the Dundee Rep on Saturday night (Sept 1) as Chris Rattray’s The Mill Lavvies returned to the theatre after a ten year absence. Set in the early 1960s, the play follows five male mill workers for whom the “lavvies” provide a respite from the noise and drudgery of their working day.
Gentle, child-like cleaner Archie, played with great warmth by John Buick, talks to the tea-urn and sings as he wields his much-loved broom. For hungover Geordie, comedian Jim (Kevin Lennon), sneering Henny (Martin McBride) and apprentice Kevin, the lavvies are a sanctuary, a way of escaping from chivvying overseer, Robert (Barrie Hunter) and the feared and shadowy figure of the gaffer, Thornton.
The lavvies in question are part of a carefully designed box set, where the “fourth wall” is effectively a mirror; the audience sits behind a row of grimy sinks as the characters fix their hair, wash their hands and ponder the big questions in life. Designer Alex Lowde has taken great pains to research mill life in this era and has produced a set which is authentic in every detail, from the institutional green of the paint to the faded linoleum and the dust on the lampshades.
A single set play such as this could easily become static, but under the guidance of award-winning director Andrew Panton, the characters are as buoyant as their banter. Conversational topics are batted back and forth and every corner of the set is utilised, as the men scurry in and out, smoke, drink their tea. The play is very fast-paced, with a lot of merciless teasing, and plenty of laughter; but it is much more than a simple musical comedy. There is a subtext here, interstices laden with the things we never get to know. War experiences are hinted at; bereavements, inequality, family circumstances. Geordie, played with great sensitivity by Jim Sturgeon, drinks to escape and arrogant Henny has been violent to his elderly father. There is plenty here to remind us that, although women dominated the jute industry, the men of Dundee, often labelled “kettle bilers”, also worked in the mills and had the same issues, insecurities and concerns as the women. She Town, a play which explores female mill culture, is running concurrently with The Mill Lavvies, thus providing an even-handed perspective on what working life was like for both sexes.
The play is liberally interspersed with musical numbers penned by renowned local singer-songwriter Michael Marra. Songs such as “If Dundee was Africa” and “Big Wide World Beyond the Seedlies” hint at life beyond the day-to-day drudgery of the mill. Thanks to powerful atmospheric effects created by lighting designer Colin Grenfell, the grim lavvies are transformed into some kind of dream reality for the musical interludes. The entire cast performed the well-choreographed routines with energy and obvious enjoyment. For those brief, colourful moments, belief is suspended and hope is allowed to surface before we return to the claustrophobic reality of the mill.
The poignancy of dreams-not-quite-realised hangs over this play. Young actor Jonathan Holt succeeds in making “rare wee laddie” Kevin both unworldly and oddly wise. When the young man confides to Archie his dreams of putting a deposit on a bass guitar, the scene is set for a tragic outcome. Aspiration is quickly shot down in the grim world of the “nine-to-five.”
Scenes are punctuated by the ominous heartbeat of the looms, and the “wailin” of the bummer’ which provided the soundtrack for many a working life in the city. The Rep, with its long tradition of reaching out to the community, should be justly proud of a heart-warming production which captures the strength, sense of camaraderie and dry humour of the working men of Dundee.
Sandra L. Ireland