Lyceum Theatre Company
Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
We're bought and sold for English gold,
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!
This was how Robert Burns described the 1707 Act of Union; this new play comes to a similar conclusion about the events surrounding the union 307 years ago. It is well researched, but not consciously relevant to the coming referendum (Barrow wrote the play three years ago).
A historical comedy which sends up some of the leading figures of the era, it is just slightly more serious than Blackadder. It jumps from Scottish brothels to English palaces and sees plenty of drinking by all members of society and a delightful array of sexual liaisons.
The sexual fluidity of some of the characters, for instance Queen Anne (Irene Allan), is not just for drama. It was a very different time and, while certainly debatable, it is not a new interpretation of Queen Anne's relationships. The play does perhaps go rather far with the bawdiness of the era, but Edinburgh in particular does have a pretty bad reputation in that field.
The early eighteenth century feel is well conveyed through Megan Baker's meticulous costumes, from the Duke of Queensbury (Liam Brennan) with his purple, brocade coat to Grace (Sally Reid) and her uplifting corset. Queen Anne too looks like she had just stepped out of an oil painting. The music also adds to the period detail.
The set is simple and uses a great deal of projection, which works best when it is simply rain, palace walls or streets. However the use of large-scale videos to complement the action on stage has the reverse effect.
The play focuses on Allan Ramsay (Josh Whitelaw), an innocent patriot just beginning his poetic career. He helps Daniel Defoe (Ifan Meredith) after Defoe is mugged on arriving in Edinburgh. Defoe though has come as a pamphleteer and spy to coerce and bribe the Scottish aristocracy.
Defoe though is a complete saint when compared the other characters involved in the passing of the act. From the Earl of Stair (Tony Cownie) who ordered the Glencoe massacre, Earl of Seafield (Mark McDonnell) the easily bribed Lord Chancellor, to the Machiavellian Robert Harley (Keith Fleming), Earl of Oxford and belligerent Duke of Marlborough (Andrew Vincent) south of the border.
Many of the ten actors play a whole selection of obnoxious characters, with Fleming's perhaps the most menacing. The most fun though is to be had when Brennan and Allan with Queensbury get the Queen wrecked on whisky and then introducing her to some particularly unsuitable songs.
Did this actually happen? Well, probably not. The play has to be taken for what it is: a light romp through history. In fact it conveys a lot of the important events quite well through the bawdy humour.
If anything, it loses its way more in its serious depiction of the relationship between Allan Ramsay and the prostitute Grace. This romantic sub-plot seems unnecessary with the wealth of political drama that is unfolding.