THEATRE / Waves of emotion: Richard Loup-Nolan on John McGrath's The Silver Darlings at the Citizens, Glasgow

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The Independent Culture
After some 30 years in gestation, John McGrath's adaptation of Neil Gunn's landmark Scottish novel The Silver Darlings is at last treading the boards at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre, under the direction of John Bett. The novel tells of a turn-of-the-19th-century Highland family cleared from their home to make way for sheep, and forced to find a new living from the forbidding sea off the north- east coast of Scotland. This poses a considerable challenge to any theatrical adaptor: how do you put the mountains, cliffs, harbours and seas of Caithness on to a proscenium arch stage?

McGrath picks up this artistic gauntlet with characteristic elan, working with Bett and the designer Wendy Shea to produce a versatile, grey crag of a set, whose lower slopes are soon segmented into neat, noble-prowed herring boats on castors for the fishing scenes. They leave behind them a flexible interior space used, by turns, as croft, bar and harbour. It's an exhibition of stagecraft of the very highest order: McGrath seems to have distilled the experience of Border Warfare and John Brown's Body - his two epic experiments in theatrical form at the Tramway, weaving action, song and music into a seamless wave of narrative.

Although rich in incident and colour, The Silver Darlings is, in McGrath's hands, a clearly focused saga in two parts led by Kevin McKidd as Finn, the eventual hero of the piece. In the first half, Finn narrates the struggles of his mother Catrine (Isabella Jarrett). Evicted from their land by their landlord, she and her husband Tormad (Stephen Cooper) make it to the coast, only for Tormad to be killed at sea by a Royal Navy press- gang. Finn's infancy parallels that of the fishing industry, jerked out of its shorts by government bounties in the Napoleonic War. In the second half, Finn passes the narrator's baton to his mother, as we watch the sea in his bones salt him to maturity.

John Bett marshals his large and talented cast with skill and assurance. Isabella Jarrett is a marvellously warm and gutsy Catrine, who finally succumbs to the powerful charms of Dougal Lee's Roddie, a gentle giant with fire in his belly. However, this is, above all, Finn's tale, told in the best Gaelic tradition. In his first professional role, McKidd embodies Finn with great confidence and poise. An inspiring fusion of ceilidh play, promenade production and conventional drama, John McGrath's Silver Darlings is a labour of love and an exhilarating reminder that 'stories are to lift us from the nets that tighten'.

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow to 3 Sept. Then tours Scotland (Box-office: 041-429-0022)

(Photograph omitted)