Making a song and dance out of Scottishness might make be a saviour for theatres - Brian Ferguson

It’s one of the most anticipated stage shows to emerge from Scotland in years and a contender for one of the most ambitious cultural projects of the year.

When Orphans, the new National Theatre of Scotland production opening in Glasgow on Thursday, was announced last year it already had an unmistakable wow factor.

A new stage show combining the talents of director Cora Bissett, songwriters Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly, and playwright Douglas Maxwell would normally be enough to grab the attention.

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But there was something boldly ambitious about the idea of turning Peter Mullan’s acclaimed Glasgow drama into NTS’s big comeback show in 2022.

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    A turbulent and traumatic night for three brothers and their sister as the clock ticks towards their mother’s funeral might not seem obvious material for a rousing roof-raising musical to herald NTS's return to the big stage.

    Yet the more I heard about the show from Mullan, Bissett, Hart, Reilly and Robert Florence, the Scottish comedy favourite who has a starring role in the show, the more it all began to make sense.

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    Bissett told me that when she, Hart and Reilly started searching for a story to turn into a musical they were on the hunt for something “intrinsically Scottish” that would appeal to a modern-day audience but also had a gritty, dark humour at its heart.

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    Orphans will officially open at the Armadillo in Glasgow on Thursday. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

    They certainly saw a lot in the characters created by Mullan 25 years ago that captured the different sides of Scottishness – and more than enough “take-off points” for a song, more than 20 as it has turned out.

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    Not so long ago, the idea of launching a Glasgow-set musical in Glasgow would have been deemed a massive risk for any theatre company, never mind one with NTS’s profile and budget.

    However NTS scored a huge long-running hit a decade ago with Bissett’s Glasgow Girls, which explored an even less-likely issue, the schoolgirl campaign over the treatment of asylum seekers in the city.

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    However the modern-day revival of musicals in Scotland can probably be traced back to Dundee Rep five years earlier, when Sunshine on Leith saw Stephen Greenhorn turned the music of The Proclaimers into a story about two soldiers returning to Leith. The show has been so successful it will be backing for another tour of duty in Pitlochry and Edinburgh this year.

    Chloe Hodgson, Amy Conachan, Betty Valencia and Amber Sylvia Edwards in Orphans. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic
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    There was a further surge of interest in Scottish musical theatre in 2015 when Dundee Rep revived the John McGrath classic The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil and took it out on the road for the first time in two decades to huge acclaim.

    Hart and Reilly, the songwriting double act behind Orphans, traced their interest in working on a new Scottish musical to Our Ladies, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, one of NTS’s most successful shows to date, which saw artistic director Vicky Featherstone join forces with Billy Elliot creator Lee Hall to adapt Alan Warner’s cult schoolgirls-on-the-rampage novel for the stage.

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    Intriguingly, Orphans is being launched at a time when three other new musicals are being developed from cornerstones of Scottish culture – Trainspotting, the music of Runrig and William Wallace.

    As theatres attempt to recover from the prolonged pandemic shutdowns, making a song and dance out of Scottishness might just be their saviour.

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