A hidden story in music and drama

Writer Alan Bissett was commissioned to create the new piece
Writer Alan Bissett was commissioned to create the new piece

Mitchell School of Drama (MSD) has a well-earned reputation for presenting first-class theatre, mounting productions of Shakespeare, or seeking out stories from our area’s local history.

This year, supported by Aberdeenshire Council funding, writer Alan Bissett was commissioned to create, in conjuction with the theatre group, a new piece about the north-east. This they have achieved most successfully.

Mitchell School of Drama (MSD) has a well-earned reputation for presenting first-class theatre

Mitchell School of Drama (MSD) has a well-earned reputation for presenting first-class theatre

Alan unearthed the story of Francis Lathom, a 19th century novelist, who is mentioned by Jane nAusten in Northanger Abbey. After a mysterious “disappearance” of 15 years, Francis settled in Inverurie, claiming a new identity and starting a new life.

Once established in the town, he certainly made an impression: dressing as a “dandy”, carousing with the locals, even starting a theatre group, and all this we see in the play.

Alan Bissett also speculates on “the missing years” and, in so doing, he exposes the religious hypocricies of the established kirk of 1820, and lays bare small town prejudices against “people who are different”.

Francis is buried in Fyvie Kirkyard in an unmarked grave, beside the Rennie family whom he befriended.

All these elements combine to create an exciting piece of theatre and all 27 members of MSD give full rein to Francis’s chequered life.

Director Rhona Mitchell delivers each scene with her trademark style; expressive movement, tableaux and dance enhance the dialogue, making every character interesting, and bringing the story to sparkling life.

The cast were highly involved in creating this piece and their engagement and commitment shine through. Even the title came from the cast! Music and song play a crucial part in the play’s success. Ashley Forbes and his accomplished band of Greg Stewart and Bruce Baillie, set the tone of each scene perfectly with thoughtful lyrics and inventive arrangements.

As Francis Lathom Jordan Abberley-Nicoll gives a sensitive portrayal, while each member of his estranged family is played with admirable sincerity and maturity.

Mikey Nicoll excels as the “fire and brimstone” Reverend Beagle and is perfectly complemented by his buttoned-up-in-black wife (Eleanor Harper) and their three subservient offspring.

Alexander Rennie (Euan Banks) and Mary Rennie (Imogen Watt), with their three charmingly lively bairns, portray well the honest, decent country folk who befriend Francis. Stuart McLeod, (Josh Simpson) the egotistical local magistrate, exudes a creepy, spider-like presence in contrast to the tart-with-a- heart. Hotel Owner (Emily Brown).

Comedy is provided by editors of the Inverurie Courier (Ruby Harrison, Molly Robertson), always searching for the next sensational headline.

There are engaging moments from the Milkmaid (Alex Kelman), the Servant Girl (Imogen Vickers) and the Fishwife (Arwen Scott) who delight in gabbling gossip and salacious Gothic fantasies.

The Drunk, the Crone, the Butcher, the Baker and the Candlestick Maker - all deserve an accolade for their lively performances. MSD’s collective enthusiasm is infectious and the audience in Inverurie was entranced.

Francis Lathom’s story may have been hidden for so long but it deserves to be told, and this production provides the perfect opportunity.

Further performances will be staged at the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen on July 31, anddAug 1st and at Peterhead Community Theatre on August 2.