“Comic effect knocks against an open coffin on Iona”
Would Samuel Johnson, heroic dictionary maker, essayist, critic, and celebrity wit ever have appeared on ‘Strictly’? Perhaps. He was, after all, prone to nervous shakes and tics and he would have been mercilessly brilliant at discombobulating the judges. Anyhow, in the last of the current season of a Play, a Pie, and a Pint, the big man is in polished boots and plaid and he steps up to a jig and seems to enjoy it.
And verily this is the same Dr Johnson, who noticed that ‘the whole [of Edinburgh] bears some resemblance to the old part of Birmingham’. Writer James Runcie continues his rehabilitation of the arch English nationalist by rowing him thoughtfully and fondly over the sea to Skye (and to Mull and Raasay). A Word with Dr Johnson – at the Traverse in October last year – was about the man, his wife, and his English dictionary; this time (1773) he’s in the boondocks and the heather and the Gaelic. For the proto London-centric it’s an ear-bending peregrination in a land where ‘you have more words than people’, which could well have been its chief attraction.
Lewis Howden plays Johnson sympathetically, of splendid girth and with orotund voice, and with a baffled interest in all things Scottish. An exploration of Fingal’s Cave, lantern in hand, leaves him only dimly enlightened but his enthusiasm for Thomas Braidwood’s school for the deaf and dumb is obviously sincere. His companion throughout is, of course, the amiable James Boswell (admirable by Simon Donaldson), who treats us to evocative latin from Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makars’, whilst guarding his distinguished author friend from the sublime and local peril of being called a bampot.
So then, a pleasing trot through good old Scottish ways ? Runcie even brings on ‘Macbeth’ and the Bonnie Prince, which is fine until their comic effect knocks against an open coffin on Iona and a poem of freedom in earnest pursuit of the Scottish nation. Supporting roles by Gerda Stevenson and Morna Young are amusing and/or tuneful but my distinct impression was of looking in at the tartan themed windows of discount booksellers, The Works, on Princes Street. The learned Dr.’s eye would take in a remaindered copy of his ‘A Journey to the Western Islands’; he would harrumph, say “I’m deeply obliged”, and move on.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 1 November)
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