Wednesday 28 June 2017

Review Mr Gillie

Mr Gillie
By James Bridie

Old School

A  Procurator - the Scottish equivalent of the Coroner - and a judge provide a supernatural "A Matter Of Life And Death" type framework for the story of quixotic schoolmaster Mr Gillie in James Bridie's intriguing exploration of education,  theatre and community. 

Mr Gillie (Andy Secombe) is a teacher at the local secondary school in Cruit, a Scottish coal mining village, a post in the gift of the  village's parochial education committee, led by the bureaucratic Reverend Gibb (David Bannerman).

Gillie has always been an independent spirit, a chess-playing would-be novelist who married a feisty wife Kate (Emma D'Inverno) below his station. Despite losing one pupil to the Communist Party and another to prison, he is keen to cultivate the brightest pupils and lead them away from a life down the mines to the London literary world where he never succeeded.  

He has great hopes for dapper Tom Donnelly envisaging him as a Scottish poet making his mark in London and Gillie encourages him to elope with Nelly (Caitlin Fielding).

Nelly is the apparently homely but musically gifted daughter of the mercurial family doctor, Dr Watson (Malcolm Rennie). 

He is old guard, hardly welcoming the NHS, and a bellligerant toper sponging off Gillie's stock of whisky. However in the end he proves surprisingly adaptable to profiting from a new regime.

We learn of Mr Gillie's sorry fate in the play's prologue but this is no sentimental and comic  kailyard drama portraying a humble event in village life but a full-blown, if satiric, state-of-the-nation play including the state of theatre. Or rather a full-blown state-of-the-nations play - in this case, Scotland and Britain.  

First produced in 1950 in Glasgow, then transferring to London's West End, the original Mr Gillie starred long-time Bridie collaborators, Alastair Sim in the title role and his own protégé George Cole (later famed for Flash Harry in St Trinians and Arthur Daley in Minder) as Tom, his prize pupil. 

This meandering comedy drama becomes a pugnacious elegy to the passing of a literary and social era of  Victorian patronage with the institution of the Welfare State throughout the United Kingdom and a perceived post-war homogeneity, gangland and American take-over of culture with Hollywood values.  

TLT and her own highly educated jalopy couldn't decide whether the play was a tribute to or a swipe at Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams' style plays such as The Corn Is Green (later made into a Hollywood film)  and Accolade, the latter revived in an acclaimed production by the Finborough in 2011.  

Secombe's Gillie precisely catches the arrogance yet vulnerability and wilful blindness of the schoolmaster, himself. He's a product of what he views as a benevolent feudal system of poets and novelists. His surname also means a servant at a master's hunting or fishing party.

As his long-suffering wife, who fulfils the clues early on in the play of a more realistic grasp of society and her place as a woman in it, D'Inverno gives a subtle, engaging performance. Bannerman as the civil servant type and Rennie (previously in Dr Angelus)  as a traditional stock comic character quicky enamoured of new ways equally convince.

The younger generation is ably played by Cazenave Pin (last seen in After October) as Tom, transitioning smoothly into a new city and lifestyle and Caitlin Fielding embodies with equal vigour the ambitious Nelly, an aggressive seductress who could have stepped out of later Angry Young Men novels.   

Jenny Eastop directs with a sensitive eye and ear for the nuances and rhythms of Bridie's own quixotic style and those of the other writers, such as Graham Greene, whom Bridie has such sardonic enjoyment  in guying.  Anna Yates' traverse stage design evokes the dilapidated, humble schoolmaster's dwelling, with the scattered tomes of Scots' writer Thomas Carlyle amonst others.

This is a 1950s' zeitgeist yet self-deprecating play. Bridie was a founder of the Edinburgh Festival and the Citizens Theatre, as well as the proponent of a Scottish bourgeois theatrical movement which included middle class amateur dramatic companies. 

However another competing movement was more rooted in working-class socialist and cooperative, as well as both communist and apolitical, drama groups, especially in the large industrial heartlands. It seems to us political and professional tensions, which also ended Bridie's association with the Scottish National Players, run  through this play.

The Judge (Drew Paterson, an actor who has emerged from community theatre), guided by the  Procurator (Ross Dunsmore) is as much a representative of the commnity here, given a position of authority yet ready to be swayed  rather than a neutral arbitrator.

This is probably as good a production as this defiant play can get, even if probably, for modern tastes, it  feels overlong. Yet Mr Gillie also points the way towards Edinburgh novelist Muriel Spark's more famous Miss Jean Brodie.   

It's also a play which manages to give a definition of community with a resonance in our Facebook age,  Bridie's works seem to us well-worth reviving. Of the radical conservative school, including plenty of wry satire in his plays, he comes to no easy conclusions and it's a amber/green light. 

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