The Sweetest Growl

Oran Mor, Glasgow

Mary Brennan

four stars

HER vast army of fans – and they included Louis Armstrong – tagged her ‘a pocket rocket’. One Scottish newspaper hailed her as “the girl with the sweetest growl”. But this was back in the 1950s, when women were not expected – you might even say were not encouraged – to ‘have it all’.

So when Mary McGowan, the glorious lead singer with Scotland’s great traditional jazz band, the Clyde Valley Stompers, got married in 1958 ... she left the band, had children, embraced domesticity and didn’t sing on-stage again until a 1980s reunion concert in Glasgow. And that’s where Claire Nicol’s first ever stage play opens, with Elaine C Smith’s mid-life Mary having serious self-doubting panics in the dressing room.

Cue biographical flashbacks: schoolgirl Mary and her best friend Kate (Hilary Lyon) both dreaming of a singing career that would wheech them away from war-battered Glasgow. It’s Mary, however, who has the voice that razzle-dazzles listeners – this is heartland territory for Smith, not just because she has that compelling talent as well, but because she knows what it feels like to entertain, to transport, audiences with a song.

And my, but there are some cracking songs in this show with Hilary Lyon and George Drennan (on trumpet and niftily role-swapping as Mary’s husband/her parents and other necessary bods) adding in tuneful harmonies. Nicol’s script, however, can’t actually tell us why Mary abandoned a successful career to become a stay-at-home wife and mother.

Unlike the anecdotes and memories that Kate relives so vicariously as she chivvies Mary back on-stage, those facts never entered the public domain. Instead there is surmise and hindsight, coloured by the patriarchal attitudes of a time that never envisaged men as house husbands or women as the family’s sole breadwinners.

The cast and director Lesley Hart avoid tub-thumping but we get the message: nowadays women have more options – and singing out for themselves is one of them.