The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil


(The first and probably the last theatre review to appear on the No Thanks! blog)

Well, I don’t often get to the Dundee Rep but when I do I always find myself thinking ‘Why doesn’t Aberdeen [where I stay] have a theatre like this?’ I’ve got my own answer by the way but this isn’t the place. It’s what every city should have – a full time company of actors based in an appropriate building that amongst other things performs work especially relevant to the place they serve.

For those too young or too uninterested to know, The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil is a revue-type show first performed in the 1970s by the long-gone 7:84 company (‘7% of the populations owns 84% of the wealth’). It links the Highland clearances (the Cheviot being the breed of sheep that replaced the people) with the rise of the 19th century sporting estates (the Stag) and, current in the 1970s, the invasion of Americans to exploit the Black, Black Oil of the North Sea.

The Rep was transformed by the removal of the front rows of seating, replaced by a single space, a band at the back, cabaret-style tables around the edge with some of the audience seated at them, and the action taking place, well just about everywhere. The talented company (ten of them, all-singing, all-playing, all-dancing) involved a substantial part of the audience not only in a spot of ceildh-ing at the start and end of the evening, but also plucked random members out to become props or, towards the climax, read some of the lines of the play.

At one level it was a great evening. Good songs, a strong unifying theme, plenty of humour, all of the things a revue should have. The place was packed, and not only I suspect because it was the last night of the run (the production had received good reviews in both the Scottish and UK press). The four of us in our group all enjoyed it.

Our response also included two comments that were telling, neither made by me – ‘It’s not very subtle, is it?’ and (explaining it to someone else later) ‘It’s all about how we should resist capitalism.’

That’s fine. The tale the evening tells is seen from a particular point of view. There’s no doubt that great, although not unique, injustice was perpetrated on people in the Highlands and the show is clear it wasn’t only the English wot done it. On the other hand, the parody of the 19th century laird class, although enjoyed by many in the audience, was relentlessly crude. So was the inclusion of a mask-wearing David Cameron complete with toy pig prancing around the stage at the finale. And this unionist didn’t really take to the hielan’ grannie who pops up from near-death to confirm she’s ‘Still Yes.’ OK, this was Dundee.

Incidentally, worth noting that a small part of the script was delivered in Gaelic. Tellingly, when the audience were asked if anyone spoke Gaelic no more (I think) than four hands went up. With an audience of about 450 that just about mirrors the percentage of Gaelic speakers remaining in Scotland. Still, good to hear the banter with the one native Gaelic-speaker in the cast who claimed after several minutes of to-and-fro he’d just been checking the footie scores, as had the gent outside the old Glasite church earlier that day who hailed me from across the road with, ‘Hey! Dundee! Score?’

Where I think the show came undone a bit was in its update of the ‘Black Black Oil.’ Back in the 70s the fear was always of a fly-by-night industry and being ripped off by the Americans while the natives did the dirty dangerous labouring. Well, it didn’t quite turn out like that. A bit awkward for the update and the best it could do was a sideways look at Norway (always Norway for separatists) and an unrealistic left-over from the original production about nationalisation.

It was a good evening but you have to acknowledge that The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil is essentially agitprop. I could see no plans to repeat the production elsewhere but if it does crop up get along to see it. Only know what you’re in for.

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