THEATRE / From the top to the bottom of the pops: Paul Taylor reviews C P Taylor's The Ballachulish Beat at the Corn Exchange, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
THE LEGEND 'To beat or not to beat? - that is the question' is scrawled in large white capitals round the rock-concert stage for The Ballachulish Beat - the curtain- raiser to this year's C P Taylor festival-within-the Festival at Edinburgh. It was noticeable during the first half of the opening night that, in the minds of a fair number of punters, the question had swiftly reformulated itself to 'To beat it or not to beat it?', the former option exerting an irresistible charm. As a reaction to Fifth Estate's show, these early departures were, perhaps, a trifle excessive. It is true, though, that newcomers to Taylor's work would have been left completely mystified as to why this author has been judged worthy of a posthumous retrospective here.

Written in 1967, The Ballachulish Beat has gone unperformed till now and, seeing it, you may feel that it is still way, way ahead of its time and likely to remain so on a permanent basis. It's a musical piece charting the discovery, hype, exploitation and fall of a Scottish rock group, the Keelies. Fancifully plotted (the group is selected by a computer called Walter who gobbles up data with huge, red satin lips), the story expresses - with the broadest of brush strokes - Taylor's irritation at the way forces for beneficial change get sidetracked through internal disputes, self-interest or apathy.

The characterisation and dialogue are steadfastly two dimensional, a fact which Allan Sharpe's production acknowledges with its cardboard cut-out props and candy-coloured comic- book costumes. Dressed in a garish pink suit, decorated with pound and dollar signs, and chomping on a big 2-D cigar, Robert Carr plays Ron Green, the fat, shifty chump of a capitalist who signs up the Keelies, only to discover that they already have a manager and songwriter in the shape of Glaswegian communist and ex-jailbird, Andy 'Mc'Stalin (a performance full of cheeky swagger from Andrew Barr).

Capitalist opportunism quickly spots the economic advantages of packaging socialism for the youth market and, by the start of the second half, the Keelies have clocked up their four-millionth fan club member. The fact that we hear nothing of how the US market has reacted to this massive, left-wing British phenomenon (and that Ron seemingly has no ambitions on that front) is just one of the many loose ends the story leaves dangling.

The rock music sequences (original music by David McNiven) are performed with an attractive gutsiness, especially by George Drennan as the group's leader. From their angry young socialist phase ('It makes me puke / This world's nae use') through to their apolitical mass- crusade-for-fun period ('Do you wanna do good? / Don't see why I should'), the pastiche lyrics raise the odd smile. But in its intent to show how a huge potential force for good - the nation's youth - is mishandled and misled by opposing interest groups and ends up triggering a civil war and imminent apocalypse, the play's rough-and-ready satire is deficient in wit, sting, coherence or emotional impact.

These faults in the writing are only exacerbated by a production which, while keeping many of the contemporary references (the Vietnam War, the Pill, etc), drains away most of the period's flavour with a compromise temporal-limbo look and which is all friendly bark and no bite.

'The Ballachulish Beat' continues until 22 August at the Corn Exchange, Newmarket Road, Edinburgh (Booking: 031-225 5756).

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