Back home on the edge of Cambridgeshire’s Fenland, I’m listening to the ringing of the nine tailors from the church tower at the other end of our village. I am struck by how unique the concept of a Burns Supper is. Fenland’s own native bard, John Clare (1793-1864), wrote mighty beautiful words in mighty beautiful ways and lived a life both tragic and interesting. Yet Clare is as obscure as the snipe sitting at his rest in safety ‘neath the clump of hugh flag forrest. Scotland – and is Scotland a people, a place, a way of being, or all three? – Scotland owes an unpayable debt to Robert Burns (1759-96) for expressing all that makes Scotland Scotland in a uniquely sensitive, sensual, and simple voice. That debt is honoured by all right-thinking people annually. There are more statues of Burns on planet Earth than of any other writer. The homages will no doubt continue until the rocks melt with the sun.
We enter slightly before a lady writer of a certain age. She has come in hopes of mending a broken heart. She caught her life’s partner of these past 10 years, making the beast with two backs with another woman – and in her bed no less. Now he’s ghosting her. He has disappeared from her life. Her literary agent, who is also her friend (sure, sure), is pressing her to complete her latest manuscript. She proceeds to arrange her holiday cottage, moving ornaments, turning on the wireless, turning it straight back off again, flicking through her glossy magazine with a wee drop of wine to defecate the standing pool of thought. No joy, she’s still got writers’ block, a bruised ego, and no one to share Burns Night with – or so she thinks. If you’ve ever seen the ‘Star Trek’ TNG episode ‘Sub Rosa’ you know that auld Scottish cottages, recently deceased aulder relatives, and lovelorn ladies attract a certain type of unquiet spirit.
As the ghost of Robbie Burns, Colin McGowan comes on waaaay too strong (at first) which is genius on the part of the author, Gillian Duffy, because it gives this lively portrait plenty of time to soften into focus. As the onstage author, Gill McGowan starts out softer and gets stronger. At the conclusion of 60 minutes of always brilliant, occasionally flirtatious badinage the two characters are, as they say in Lodge No.133, ready to part upon the square. Both have fine voices, well suited to Burns’ classic lyrics. The spine-tingling effect will instantly have your heart in the highlands chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe. This is easily the best double act for your money this EdFringe and with a script that gets you wondering if Gillian Duffy has also encountered the shade of Bro. Burns, perhaps on that stone bridge Eddi Reader says she saw him on.
Come for the immortal memory. Stay for the lively and perfectly balanced performances. Leave with a new and/or renewed appreciation for the man, the work, the legend. Get your tartan-tastic coats on and go see this.