Story of Portobello's most famous son is first play to be performed on an Edinburgh main stage since lockdown

Jamie MacDougall as Sir Harry LauderJamie MacDougall as Sir Harry Lauder
Jamie MacDougall as Sir Harry Lauder
JAMIE MACDOUGALL’S plan was to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sir Harry Lauder with a performance of his one-man show in Portobello, where the legendary music hall star was born... then, along came lockdown.

Lauder, a musical play adapted by MacDougall and Kally Lloyd-Jones from an original script by Jimmy Logan, explores the public and private personas of one of Scotland’s greatest entertainers. It’s a rags to riches story packed with many of his hit songs and the gentle humour that made him a household name throughout the world and the first truly global Scottish artist.

“Originally I had planned to present the show at the Bellfield Centre in Portobello. It was always my intention that the good people of Portobello, where Harry was born, would lead the celebrations,” says MacDougall. "Then, after Portobello I was going to transfer the play to the Ghillie Dhu for 12 Fringe performances - all that went up in Covid smoke.”

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When lockdown forced the closure of theatres everywhere, MacDougall decided he “couldn’t let Harry’s 150th birthday go unnoticed”. Determined to mark the occasion, he managed to get access to the King’s Theatre last week, where he recorded the show with no audience and all those involved, socially distanced. The filmed play is set to premiere on YouTube at 8pm on Tuesday 4 August and will be available to watch online thereafter.

“I had a chat with Duncan Hendry who has been co-producing the Lauder tour," he explains. “He had booked Lauder for the Studio at Festival Theatre in 2019 and really enjoyed it. When he retired as CEO of Capital Theatres I approached him to help mark Harry’s big year. That’s how the connection with the King’s came about. It was the perfect fit. Okay, it wasn’t Portobello, but it was a theatre with a history with Sir Harry. There’s even a picture in the archives taken during a matinee of his show. It was a total sell out.”

All very different to the deserted auditorium that awaited MacDougall last week. He reflects that playing to an empty King’s was indeed a strange experience. “It was a strange feeling, however, Jimmy Logan sets the first part of the play in an empty theatre with Sir Harry rehearsing his show. So it was perfect.”

Lauder now holds the honour of being the first piece of theatre to be performed on an Edinburgh stage since lockdown was enforced. “It felt so wonderful to be on a stage. It was quite emotional for me,” says MacDougall. What an honour it was, and to think that Sir Harry stood on that very stage made it all the more special.”

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MacDougall discovered his love of Lauder aged just 10. He recalls, “I’ve loved his songs and more importantly this play since I was 10 and first saw Jimmy Logan in it. An LP was bought for me and I learnt all the songs in a week so that when I was taken back for a repeat performance on the Saturday, I was able to song along. The songs were catchy, fun and colourful. As a 10 year old, what wasn’t there to like?”

The idea to perform the piece himself first came to the actor and tenor when he took part in a fund raiser at Portobello Town Hall for a memorial to the performer.

“I had hoped a statue would have been erected. Sadly that didn’t happen. Maybe one day.” He adds, “But I can tell you that if ever a song was needed at this moment as we emerge from this terrible pandemic it’s Harry’s Keep Right on to the End of the Road. Composed after the death of his only son John at the Somme. It’s message of hope, that we can all get through the darkest of times. What I really want to do is get these songs taught and sung in primary schools across the country.

“It would be great if the youngsters in Portobello, Leith and Edinburgh were singing these when they finally get back to school after the pandemic. I was 10 when I fell under the spell of these songs, I’d love to think I could pass that magic onto the next generation.”

Lauder premieres on YouTube, 4 August, 8pm

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