The Red Curtain is not a native Scot, so unfortunately has to plead unfamiliarity with the Robbie Burns poem Tam O’Shanter, purportedly a piece of text most good Scottish children (that’s a we’en, apparently) will have drilled into them at school. But there’s no matter: the new production of Tam O’Shanter, from theatre group Communicado, is as warm and intriguing an introduction to the Rabelaisian excesses of Burns’ epic as one could hope for.
The show, then, is not so much about plot, more an impressionistic collage of thoroughly Scottish moments. Our titular Tam drinks, cavorts, and debauches himself anyway he can in the old Scotch town of Ayr in the 18th century (not that that stops the cast from sneaking in the odd anachronistic gripe about the Edinburgh Trams, and cheeky wee mentions of Dolce & Gabbana knock-offs, much to the delight of the crowd).
Through a series of beautiful folk songs and inventive set pieces (a witches coven is presented using puppets, the cast sink to their knees, gurning, to adopt the look of live-stock), the play celebrates the bawdiness and spirituality of Scottish life, ending with a horse-ridden jaunt to Hell and back. A stand-out sequence features the large cast serving at/being served in a crowded country pub, and the sheer relentless speed and accuracy of observation is giddying. There’s no time left for laughter, which means you end up rocking with swallowed guffaws, trying to catch the next line. Breath-taking.
Not surprisingly for a work based on a poem, this is a production all about rhythm, thumping with a heady thrum. Integral to this orgy of pleasure, then, is a celebration of the nimble nature of the Scots tongue. And if that sounds a bit saucy, then you’re not wrong – there’s plenty of joyous romping and hay-rolling, and a woman dancing the sexiest dance I’ve sent this side of Jemaine Clement tripping over his own socks. But to digress – the language is beautiful, all rollicking rhymes and creative cursing (parents, be warned, the language is choice). Ably serving this is a cast of immensely energetic, agile performers, all of whom speak the language trippingly, dance, sing, and transform themselves into cows with aplomb. The physical demands of the show are met, and the pace never flags.
A rambunctious afternoon of theatre, one that will leave you lusting for life and a bevy (or eight). Scot or not, you’ll find yourself adopting Burn’s beautiful language for hours afterwards. Not for the we’ens, though, ye ken?
Tam O’Shanter is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, at the Assembly Halls, 9-26 August. Full price tickets are £15.