Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer

Iain Heggie
Finborough Theatre
(2009)

Publicity image

Some people simply cannot see others' suffering. Such is the case in Iain Heggie's beautifully crafted new play The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer, which explores Glasgow's eighteenth century rise as a tobacco port. Here, Heggie paints an insightful and moving picture of the Scottish boom, where tobacco merchants lived high on the backs of black slaves and used minor investors as their peons.

In this case, said peon is Enoch Dalmellington, a paradoxically pious lawyer who struggles with his daughter's bookish inclinations and the imminent threat of financial demise. Dalmellington is clearly a departure from the raw and raucous characters of Heggie's early oeuvre (including two health club workers known for offering fringe benefits to clients and an audacious theatre agent with no qualms about cutting her husband financially loose). Nonetheless, The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer maintains a delightful sense of humour throughout.

Part of the fun comes from the bevy of characters so carefully drawn here by Heggie. Although The Tobacco's Merchant's Lawyer is written for a solo voice, Heggie's rich depictions of Dalmellington's inner circle and Callum Cuthbertson's adept performance seem to summon this supporting cast to the stage.

Cuthbertson is at his best when navigating the waters of Dalmellington's relationships with a number of fierce and fabulous females. As a widower, Dalmellington must marry the roles of doting dad and mother hen to "dreich pious" daughter Euphemia. Cuthbertson relishes this, demonstrating particular charm in his lament "speaking as a mother I could not bring myself to remind my daughter that her housekeeping leaves a considerable amount to be desired."

Dalmellington is also at odds with the local fortune teller, Zapata, whose on-point predictions (women will some day attend universities - gasp!) are the source of endless amusement. In the widow MacKay, he finds another worthy opponent; although her rants often prompt Dalmellington's agitation, all is forgotten when she reveals a particularly well-formed tartan garter clad thigh. As the relationship between widow and widower deepens, Heggie's work blossoms, adeptly touching on the mutual compassion and understanding integral to this fledgling bond.

The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer is at its finest, however, when characters fail to see suffering. Such anguish unfolds here through slavery's contribution to the tobacco boom. In his program notes, Heggie reveals some trepidation about history looming too large in his latest offering. This is not the case, however. We are prompted to examine the gross injustices of the slave trade in America not via didactic grandstanding but through the actions of Heggie's main players.

Mr. McCorquindale, a fat cat tobacco merchant (and general stand-in for all capitalist opportunists of the period), is at the heart of the problem. Yes, he plays fast and loose with Dalmellington's hard-earned 1,500 guineas and has a lecherous eye for Euphemia, but far worse crimes soon surface. George Buccleuch, Euphemia's suitor and an advocate for racial equality, reveals that McCorquindale has forced himself on numerous slaves, resulting in three pregnancies. Such behaviour seems to go unchecked, however, as the residents of Glasgow are more incensed by Buccleuch's cries for the slaves' emancipation than McCorquindale's gross offences.

Heggie threads all of this together with clarity, resulting in a bittersweet account of Glasgow's day in the economic sun. Dalmellington's light-hearted rants on parenthood and female failings are effectively interspersed with the play's critique of the American slave trade and all who benefited. Moreover, The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer expertly parallels America's plight for sovereignty with similar Scottish rumblings. Alas, though, when the all-knowing fortune teller Zapata is faced with the question of Scotland's independence, her crystal ball remains cloudy with a chance of torrential conflict.

Clearly Heggie's mini-narrative (running at a succinct 60 minutes) has won this critic's hardened heart but acclaim for this strong production can't rest solely on his shoulders. Despite some minor first night trepidations, Callum Cuthbertson embodies Dalmellington with ease, endearing the audience to this sweet and charming anti-hero. Liz Carruthers also deserves kudos for a perfectly pitched production; Dalmellington's journey resounds thanks to her clear vision. Additionally, designers Gordon Bavaird, John Cairns, Marthe Hoffman and James Oswald contribute greatly to the mix, skillfully detailing Heggie's eighteenth century world.

In short, The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer is essential fall fare. Iain Heggie presents an unforgettable take on Scotland's involvement in the tobacco trade through this subtle enquiry into suffering. The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer adeptly interrogates those who railed against anguish, those who caused it and, worse yet, those who resigned themselves to sit complacently by.

Playing until 19th October

Reviewer: Melissa Poll