The Lamplighter

Jackie Kay

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Edinburgh Book Festival

On 14 August 2014

Review by David Chadderton

This 2007 radio play by Scottish playwright and poet Jackie Kay was originally written to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

This rehearsed reading, directed by Alison Peebles and first performed at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow last month, is a powerful recreation of the attitudes and effects of slavery as told by its victims.

We hear from an eight-year-old girl her sensations of listening to the water while trapped in the hold of a ship for weeks after being taken from her village by the slave traders. There are stories of slave auctions, life on the plantations, beatings, rapes and more, interspersed with weather reports that include statistics of how many slaves have died on the ships or been slung overboard to claim the insurance, recounted as dispassionately as reports of wind and rain.

The play, as with much of Kay's work, focusses more strongly on powerful language than on strong plotting, which certainly hits some big highs, but it takes a lot of concentration to pick up everything in a piece that long overran its allocated slot in the Festival programme without a plot to carry you through.

There are strong performances from all of the cast, and some music and singing as well that really lifts the atmosphere at times. There are moments when the characters aren't so much recounting their stories as reaching out to us through history, pleading with us to remember them and what they suffered.

With some great use of language and heartbreaking stories well-told, it was certainly worth the effort for nearly two hours in this one-off performance.