Written and Composed by Tish Tindall
Directed by Diane Aspinall and Tish Tindall
Our national dish, the Haggis: you take, what many consider to be, the worst aspects of another dish, the off-cuts, and cram them together with dashes of flavour, spice, and panache. The result is unique, an acquired (but delicious) taste, and iconically Scottish.
Tish Tindall’s re-vamped Burns, which evolved from an original idea from Michael Jackson and David Guest, tries desperately to be these things. It takes the remnants of similar genre tropes, mixes in a confused visual aesthetic, and sprinkles it over engaging concept, but contains too much of the offal to be a palatable chieftain o-the puddin’ race.
Burns has had a troubled history from its initial conception to its revitalisation to its current state. And what a peculiar state it finds itself in. As Scotland’s Casanova is stripped of his appeal, his legendary charisma – and most vitally his humanity, and condensed into a simple question; what if Robert Burns had been alive in the modern world?
The significant drawback is the allure of romanticism, which is left at the door of the past, struggling to find a place in the crow-barred world of Whatsapp gags which causes the ‘contemporary’ story to somehow feel already outdated.
Tindall’s Burns isn’t looking to re-invent the man but rather cherry-pick Burns himself out and thrust him into a contemporary Scotland, where his poetry and sonnets make him a man of many nations – subject to the scowls of nationalism, the dismissal of the Scots language, but retains his infamous attitude towards women. Burns attempts to do this while weaving the desperations of depression with the addictive qualities of fame and influence but never has much to say or even develop on either of these aspects.
Where the flourish of original stories is concerned, there’s an unhelpful and quick-to-judge mentality surrounding new productions. It’s easy to salt the earth and stamp the sprouting seeds, and with the frustrations of Tindall’s script, it’s a likely outcome for audiences and critics alike. But after thirty years in some form of production or another, there’s few excuses for the mess this ends up being. There is something to nurture in the soil; without question, there is a passion here, and the labour of love poured over re-adapting and re-inventing Burn’s story is evident – but it feels misplaced, the energy directed into the incorrect channels.
Tindall’s aesthetic vision, realised by Steve Bannister and Silverbox Groups, can easily be tracked to the exposed scaffolding of Emma Bailey’s set for Six, but where Six benefits from the concert style, Burns still strives for a musical flow of choreography and movement, attempting to use as much space as possible. Cascaded behind the live band, writer Tindall on the piano as our narrator, and performers is an enormous white-wash backdrop, often cast in various shades of orange or purple to offer an immersion of sorts to reflect or reinforce the mood on stage.
The first act is confusing. The second is infuriating. Tindall’s narration offers additional, but repetitive dimensions, and may have done better telling Rab’s story without his physical presence. Fusing limited aspects of chronology with historical fiction stretches to a disjointed level never fully capitalised on in the show’s second act. How would America, a land known for its love of Burn’s poetry, react to the man as a celebrity in the modern era? And how would Burns cope in a time of female autonomy – these questions are never addressed, and instead swept to the side for engaging but boisterous musical numbers and cheap jokes about technology or the ‘cock in a hat’.
Much of the show hinges on Burns, and the attempt at a rambunctious yet still appealing and three-dimensional man requires an injection of something massive in terms of personality and gaul. And Elijah Aspinall is just lacking in the presence to breathe life into the Bard and fumbles over the tremendously difficult notion of dragging his spirit (kicking and screaming) into the contemporary world of instant communications, pleather, and memes. The crux of the matter is that under Diane Aspinall’s direction, the man they attempt to dress in the rags of suave and misunderstood anxieties comes over as brash, arrogant, and thoroughly unlikeable.
There’s additional disconnection from an opportunity to breathe life and understanding into the (many) women in Burn’s life. From his mother to Jean, to Meg, Jenny, and the many other ‘distractions’, there’s a strong presence of women onstage – from the ensemble performers and storytellers to the lead cast outside Aspinall. Giving it their all, Lucy Tindall’s Meg O’Shanter takes much of the show’s reigns to drive the momentum forward and hit the comedic notes to keep what remains of our attention drawn – even performing an exceptionally unexpected cowboy pop number.
Bryony Munro has a much harsher task, Tindall’s script strips Jean Armour’s agency away, pushing her into an archaic nagging character, the whole show finding difficulty crafting these women as characters outside of Burn’s pull. Munro, Amie McWilliam and Elizabeth McNally lend their vocals to Tindall’s composition fine, and there’s certainly a degree of interest in the show’s musical structure which needs a lot of work before it should be on the Playhouse stage.
The majesty of good poetry is knowing when words aren’t necessary – something Tindall’s script overcompensates. There’s promise here which is tossed aside for self-aggrandising bloat. When reciting Tam O’ Shanter, Aspinall is offered the opportunity to flex their determination and perform as the recognisable Burns – and the entire thing is drowned out by the composition, the nonsensical lyrics, and the choreography which all mingle together in a less-than-appealing cacophony of poor direction and sound design. Frequently Aspinall’s line delivery is beaten-down with loud acoustics or cut short by a quip from Tindall’s narration corner. And by the same merit – genuine moments of humour or potential are trampled over by sudden lyrics or musical cues.
The work of Robert Burns inspires. For his personal faults, his work lays the foundations for those to build from, even perfect, and charter their own creations. To know that his words echo through centuries to align with another should, if anything, be a compliment. But what Burns achieves is Shortbread tin culture. Something likely to be ravenously devoured by audiences further afield but on the home ground raises more than an eyebrow, and indeed, likely puts many audiences off their supper.
A Shortbread Tin Musical
Burns runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse until January 21st.
Further information about the production and Tindall’s other shows may be obtained here.