Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Keith Bruce

four stars


The tenure of Elizabeth Newman as artistic director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre has been distinguished by creative dialogue with the rest of Scottish theatre and an increase in the representation of Scots talent at the venue, continuing a process begun by her late predecessor, John Durnin.

Opening the season with a musical theatre revival was also a Durnin innovation, and the first production this summer, directed by Pitlochry associate Ben Occhipinti, recalls the earliest of those in its reliance on an ensemble of multi-talented performers with the full set of acting, singing, instrument-playing and dancing skills.

There can be few better shows to demonstrate those than Gypsy, director Jerome Robbins’s backstage tale created with Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, his book and lyrics partners on West Side Story, and composer Jule Styne – and with Ethel Merman in the central role of Mama Rose, the pushy mother intent on vicarious stardom through her daughters June and Louise.

Shona White takes the challenging Merman role and makes it her own, a commanding stage presence with her own large and distinct vocal style, and characterisation that builds beautifully over the evening. As June and Louise, Patricia Panther and Blythe Jandoo are also very well cast, the former all flamboyant athleticism, Jandoo more of a slow burn, as the narrative becomes her story too, under stage-name Gypsy Rose Lee. As the inexplicably loyal Herbie, Ben Stock also comes into his own after the interval, while Robbie Scott grabs every moment of his Act One solo feature, dancing Tulsa’s “All I Need is the Girl”.

Those individual performance make up for some uncertain pacing in a staging that takes a while to get going, despite songs like “Some People” and “Small World” before the showstopper “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” closes the first half. Friday evening’s show was not entirely without dips later as well, but those were perhaps down to first night stickiness.

There was no lack of application from musical director Rob Hiley’s band, appropriately a trad jazz sextet of trumpet, trombone, clarinet/sax, piano, bass and drums, all of them also crucial characters in the storyline. In fact it was the three women in that line-up, Kirstin Weichen Wong, Trudy Ward and Rachael McAllister – already impressive on piano, bass and trombone – who made the crucial ensemble impact in the final scenes.

Running in repertory until September 30. Pitlochry’s summer season also includes A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter and a new play by Peter Arnott, Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape.