THEATRE; Highlands and Irelands

Mayfest round-up Glasgow
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The Independent Culture
With no documentary proof of his identity or his past, the Ugandan refugee Joseph Omara finds himself at the mercy of Ireland's hostile Aliens Office in Wiseguise's touring production of Donal O'Kelly's Asylum! Asylum! In the contemporary context of increasingly strict external immigration controls throughout Europe, O'Kelly is careful to stress that Omara would receive similar treatment in many other EU states. But this is much more than an angry "issue" play. The intolerance and prejudice embedded in the state's immigration procedures are reflected in the divisions that have grown up in the family of Omara's principal captor, Leo Gaughran. By the time O'Kelly's tight narrative is fully uncoiled, the complexities of achieving public and private understanding have become inseparable.

Kenneth Glenaan directs his excellent cast with pace and vigour, never allowing the anger of the play's confrontations to boil over into melodrama. O'Kelly's command of his material is masterful, not least in the way he slips lyrical and sometimes painfully resonant images into otherwise naturalistic dialogue. With perfect English and a love of Churchillian prose inherited from his father, David Baker's Omara is perhaps an unusual immigrant but without doubt a magnificently articulate champion for O'Kelly's cause. Omara cannot escape from the "smell of smoke" associated with his ordeal in Uganda; Asylum! Asylum! alerts us to the dangers of similar fires already ignited in Europe.

John Binnie's adaptation for Clyde Unity of Margaret Thomson Davis' popular novel Breadmakers offers a rich slice of Govan life in the late 1920s. Opening on the eve of the annual Govan Fair, Breadmakers centres on the owner and workers at the McNair bakery, who ride the hard times of the Great Depression on monopolistic (and metaphorically life-affirming) clouds of flour.

In a largely light-hearted first half, Binnie leads us into the lives of his characters in a deft series of encounters, more sketches than scenes. There's an irresistible cheek about the performance style, too. But all the while, Binnie is preparing the ground for the darker events of the second half. In his writing and under his direction, the change in tone is unobtrusive and compelling. Comic grotesques, such as Hope Ross's Mother Fowler, become genuine monsters, while Linda Duncan McLaughlin as frail Sarah Fowler and Mari Binnie as wide-eyed Catriona Munro metamorphose unassumingly into authentically tragic figures.

Carl MacDougall's new play The Climbing Boy is set in the maelstrom of 1840 Glasgow, straining at its seams with a constant influx of immigrants cleared from their homes in the Highlands and in Ireland.Unfortunately, MacDougall finds himself torn between telling the story of the Nolan family, whose five-year-old son becomes the chimney sweep of the title, and describing the wider drama of the society into which they have fallen. The (real) events The Climbing Boy follows are enough to keep you in your seat but the play never takes off as it should.

n `Asylum! Asylum!' is at the Arches Theatre (0141 221 9736) to 20 May, then on tour: 0131 557 5918. `The Breadmakers' is at the Citizens' Theatre to 20 May (0141 429 0022), then on tour: 0141 353 0905. `The Climbing Boy' is at the Cottier Theatre (0141 357 3868) to 20 May, then on tour: 0141 631 2267

Richard Loup-Nolan