Tay Bridge

Dundee Rep

Three Stars

Until September 21

How Not to Drown

Seen at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Four stars

Playing Tron Theatre, Glasgow,

September 11-14


The Dundee Repertory Theatre is currently celebrating two important milestones: namely, the 80th anniversary of the theatre as an institution and the 20th year of its ensemble company of actors (a very continental European innovation, which remains unique on the Scottish theatre scene). The Rep’s artistic director Andrew Panton has decided, quite reasonably, to mark this momentous year with a new play about the Tay Bridge disaster of December 28, 1879, which remains one of the most notable events in Dundee’s history.

Intriguingly, Panton has employed the services, not of a local, Tayside writer (as one might have expected), but of Glaswegian dramatist Peter Arnott. The drama, entitled simply Tay Bridge, does not concentrate on the details of the disaster itself, from the dreadful weather on the fateful day to the cataclysmic structural flaws of the bridge, which was designed by Sir Thomas Bouch for the North British Railway company.

Instead, Arnott chooses to imagine the lives and personalities of some of the at least 74 people who died when the Wormit to Dundee train plunged into the Firth of Tay (there were no survivors). The play (which Arnott credits to an original idea by actor Tom McGovern) interweaves pen portraits of passengers on the ill-fated train, and of people connected with them.

A young couple (Leah Byrne and Bailey Newsome), on the brink of declaring their engagement to be married, quarrel over whether to emigrate to the United States or stay in Dundee. A well-intentioned teacher (Ewan Donald) tries to give a bright, but impoverished, boy a brighter academic future in the teeth of the cynicism of a reactionary, somewhat degenerate schoolmaster (Barrie Hunter).

On the train, the private and public anxieties of various working-class and middle-class women are disrupted by the inveigling of a decidedly sinister man by the name of McQuarrie (played by the impressively versatile Hunter). These diverse lives are portrayed by a generally strong cast and articulated in Arnott’s impressively robust poetics (even if the structure of the piece is a tad laboured at times).

Emily James’s costume designs are more pleasing on the eye than her overly-literal, broken rail carriage set (which, nonetheless, boasts atmospheric lighting by Simon Wilkinson). The less said of the production’s misguidedly prominent choreography (courtesy of movement director Emily-Jane Boyle), the better.

Initially irritating in its slow-motion mime, the movement ultimately fails in its ill-advised attempt to convey the horror of the passengers’ final moments. It is a catastrophe caused by overreaching ambition, much like the Tay Bridge disaster itself.

From an historical calamity to a modern day humanitarian crisis in How Not to Drown, a new play by Scotland-based playwright Nicola McCartney and one-time child asylum seeker Dritan Kastrati. A co-production between the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and ThickSkin theatre company, the drama premiered at last month’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It transfers to the Tron Theatre, Glasgow this coming week.

The piece is based upon the true story of Kastrati, who was sent from his native Kosova to seek asylum in the UK aged just 11. Interestingly, the primary focus of the narrative is not on the child’s travel from the former Yugoslavia to Britain (although we do see some episodes, usually involving the Albanian mafia, from his transit).

The larger part of the play is concerned with Kastrati’s experience, as a child, of the British asylum and care systems. The action takes us from the ubiquitous suspiciousness of Home Office officials (whose primary concern seems to be with branding Dritan’s older brother, who has already settled in London, as a criminal) to Dritan’s distressingly unstable experience of the foster care system.

Director Neil Bettles tells the tale through an excellent ensemble of five young actors, who shift constantly and dynamically through a dizzying array of characters. Designer Becky Minto’s cleverly revolving, brilliantly versatile, abstract set (which is lit beautifully by Zoe Spurr) sits in atmospheric harmony with Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s nicely attuned sound design.

At moments, particularly early in the play, the piece can seem a little too explicatory; which is always a danger with what is, in essence, a work of documentary theatre. That said, thanks to both the text and its realisation by Bettles and his fine cast, the production raises itself above the dry-but-well-intentioned work that so often characterises its genre. Ultimately, How Not to Drown is as urgent in theatrical terms as it is in its humanist politics.