In this sentimental musical journey back into wartime Dundee and dark family secrets, the themes of loneliness and loss are never far away. Barbara Burnett (played by Sue Robertson) sits on a bench at the top of the Law in 1965, and looks back across a quarter of a century at the city and her life as they were then. The Empress Ballroom is still thriving on Dock Street, the shipyards are still busy, and Dundee West station is still standing. And, of course, here is the one thing which doesn’t change and which dominates everything – the view from the Law (give or take a multi or two).
Why ever did I think toy-boys were an invention of the Naughties? Well, it’s 1940 and thirty-somethings Barbara and best friend Angie (played by Ailsa Laurie) rock victory rolls and genuine vintage frocks for their Saturday night at the dancing, whilst teenage cousins Joe and Matt Meldrum (played by Scott McRuvie and Kris Mordente) look uncomfortable in their grey suits and Brylcreemed hair. Somehow, in these days before television, the internet and mobile phones, the boys manage to look older than their absent dads, but outside the Empress Ballroom the lads will be lads and the thirty-something girls will be flirts, with an occasional oblique nod to homophobia (“Feart o’ lassies? He must be a hairdresser!”) and under-age shenanigans (“He’ll go oot a bairn an come back a man…”).
Barbara falls for Joe, who is in a protected job at the shipyards, whilst Angie’s fancy, Matt, the seventeen-year-old orraman from Newtyle, will be called up on his eighteenth birthday. Angie’s mother, Hazel (Heidi Cathro) has an embarrassing penchant for very young men in uniform, large measures of gin, and clothes several sizes too small for her. The butt of Angie’s rueful jokes, she just manages to fall short of the pantomime dame by revealing her deep sense of vulnerability and isolation. Will Joe finally join up? What deep secret is his mum Ruth (Lynne Binnie) harbouring? What will become of the boys?
The cast, a treasure-trove of local professional and semi-professional talent, engaged this audience – all, I would guess, immersed in much-referenced local knowledge – with their combination of comic banter, their musical competence and genuinely moving insights: Barbara’s longing to see her father again, Angie’s live-for-the-day attitude, Ruth’s sorrow at seeing her boys depart for the front line in France.
The bewildering number of scene changes, each highlighted by a song, was handled with the sureness and slickness of a much larger theatre company. The key to its success was simplicity. The scene on the Law, dominated by a full-stage backdrop image of the snow-covered Sidlaws, was as convincing as it was bleak to a Dundonian – this was Dundee. Auntie Ruth’s stone sink, wooden table and clothes horse transports the audience straight into her tenement kitchen. The grey stone backdrop and geometric floor lighting of Dundee West station reflected the sense of foreboding and gloom of those leaving for the front and those left behind.
Kevin Walsh’s composition “Seize the Day”, sung by Matt, Joe, Barbara and Angie, was the show-stopper, enthusiastically received by the audience, closely followed in popularity by Hazel’s rendition of “Grow Old Gracefully” (comp. Malcolm Dowie). In spite of a distinct “sameness” about all the songs, the musical element of the show was thoroughly enjoyable, and Euan Gow’s simple piano accompaniment was a perfect foil to the theme of wartime austerity.
ReCree8dundee has managed to capture not only the atmosphere of war-time Dundee, but also that elusive Dundonian characteristic, still alive and well today – a profound love-hate relationship with the city!