The Stamping Ground – Festival Theatre

Written by Morna Young

Concept by Alan B McLeod

Directed by Luke Kernaghan

Featuring the Songs of Runrig

Rating: 3 out of 5.

What is ‘home’? Is it where we feel safe, where we are from, or is it simply the land itself we inhabit? Perhaps, it’s all of these. Or maybe it’s something more.

The merger of popular music and soppy, romanticised theatre can often feel jarring in the early doors of jukebox musicals, but there’s a sense that the elements which heralded folk-rock group Runrig’s success in becoming one of Scotland’s biggest bands are also present for The Stamping Ground which keep it out of the genre. It is unashamedly open and intimate in its passion and wistful yearning for the land so often characterised in novels, media and quite a few of Runrig’s songs too.

It’s a touch of quality to see that songs aren’t as shoe-horned in as one oft’ finds with ‘musicals. Taken from an original concept from Alan B McLeod, The Stamping Ground finds the population of a small village in Glenbeg skyrocket from 105 to 108 after Euan returns with his wife Annie to their childhood home, after many years, to remove their daughter Fiona from the bullying and harshness of city life. What initially feels like a family-focused melodrama opens to a community that faces an extinction (of sorts) as holiday homes and cash-rich outsiders buy up land and the local pub.

But there are ripples of nuance to a very significant real danger facing the Highlands and Islands – both the crippling impact of climate change and the explosive infestation of cultural tourism staying long past its welcome. These are far from the primary narrative, but their part of a much wider net that writer Morna Young, and McLeod, aim to cast.

Young’s writing, likely with John Kilety’s exquisitely strong musical direction, identifies keywording in lyrics to select the running order and inclusion of Runrig’s catalogue – with new arrangements enabling a unique and skilfully structured score for the production. It enables many of these famous songs to be valued from new perspectives, offering dynamic voices and experiences to tell new tales with these treasured melodies and respect for tradition. It’s nowhere more pertinent than the use of the Gaelic language, and though there is some overpronunciation, largely strikes the right flow and pitch to transform the past into the contemporary, or rather, remind the present of its roots.

No, where better demonstrated than with the role of Summer, Naomi Stirrat’s poetic flourishes and poignant rapt performance make them the absolute marvel of the production. Amidst a strong supporting cast of humour, song and sonnet – Stirrat captures the understanding of Young’s script and Runrig’s lyrics with a pristine sense of understanding and shading. A powerful performance – both vocally and emotionally, they work tremendously well with Barry Hunter’s turn as crofter Donnie, who delivers the encapsulating number that sums up the entire show – Dance Called America.

It’s no surprise that with Stirrat, and the other leading women in this cast, The Stamping Ground channels a matriarchal importance in understanding the land and the importance of home. The emotional crux and vocal power often lie in the beating hearts of the women onstage: Juliet Cadzow, Caitlin Forbes, Annie Grace, and Jenny Hulse join Stirrat in delivering ballads and folk-rock anthems. Generational dispute and healing are the bedrock of their performances, Forbes and Grace taking their still-young motherly roles to heart, learning about themselves as frequently as they teach. While Forbes’ headstrong, though still wide-eyed Fiona grows an appreciation for the land, her heritage and the future as she learns from the women surrounding her.

And it’s all a touch too much for her father, the rigid, unyielding but crumbling masculinity which cannot find a place in this new world – returning to his childhood home to find it doesn’t vibrate at the same frequency as he now does. Ali Watt’s Euan is far from an antagonist but certainly turns in a strong performance as the struggling father, husband and son who gradually finds his way once again. Vocally, Watt stands toe-to-toe with the rest of the cast and delivers a simply exquisite ballad duet with Grace to close the production with Somewhere. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for all the performer’s diction – a few cases of projecting to the stage rather than the audience disrupts some of the numbers.

It’s a narrative struggle for the men, where the central elements of their purpose and stubborn resistance to change (or in Johnny’s case, bulldozer approach to change) which feel slender and less well-conceived than the score and other elements of the story. There are undoubted echoes of Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, and though it may not quite achieve the nuances of that tale fully, hidden beneath the nostalgic encomia of the mountains and landscape are more lacerating moments – comments on the economic hardships and ‘forms of eviction’ which harken back to the still bitter taste of the Clearances.

Momentum continues with jigs and flings aplenty, Luke Kernaghan’s vigorous production may enshrine itself in the immovable settings of the mountains, but with Jade Adamson’s movement direction, the flow of the burns, the winds, and the petals bursts into movement under the shadow of Kenneth MacLeod’s circular stone setting – all whilst the bolts of Simon Wilkinson’s lighting crackle around the cast.

Rich in appreciation and transformation, The Stamping Ground does rely too heavily on a few musical tropes – especially when there is so much depth available in the soil of the Highland tales and communities. But the heart of the show, and the talent and energy behind it, cause audiences to fill their hearts with gratitude for life, love, and the country we call home with mirth and smiles. Raw Material’s show is a cut above the rest of the usual jukebox-style musicals, escaping the moniker, and offers a terrific evening to have in Edinburgh – drawing the Highlands into the capital, The Stamping Ground shows the Lowlanders just how to cut a jig, sing a song, and appreciate the land we walk on. 

A Cut-Above the Rest

The Stamping Ground runs at the Festival Theatre until May 27th. Tuesday – Saturday at 19.30pm. With matinees at 14.30pm on Thursday and Saturday. Suitable for ages 12+
Running time – two hours and thirty minutes with one interval. Tickets begin from £26.50 (Con. available) and may be obtained here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s