The Best Of All Possible Worlds: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s Highlights Tour 2019…

SPRING 2019 OPERA HIGHLIGHTS 
Touring to 18 venues across Scotland

Over the last few years Scottish Opera has been taking to the highways and byways of Scotland bringing their Opera Highlights Tour to villages and towns, schools halls, community centres, and local theatres across the country. It’s a deceptively simple premise with four singers and a piano presenting various highlights from a wide range of operas framed around one uniting premise.

This time around Musical Director and pianist Elizabeth Rowe is joined by mezzo-soprano Heather Ireson, soprano Lucy Anderson, baritone Harry Thatcher and tenor Tom Smith.  From Handel’s Rodelinda (1725) to Jonathan Dove’s Flight (1998) and visiting, among others, Mozart, Bizet, Wagner, Handel, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Gershwin & Weill along the way, they present a wide range of styles and themes which give a wonderfully diverse overview of what opera has to offer.

Scots Whay Hae! were at the Cumbernauld Theatre for the latest stop on 2019’s tour. Having seen the last three tours there were no doubts it would be a memorable evening, and that was proved right. The setlist this time around is built on the idea of the picaresque novel. The episodic structure of that format, and it’s often satirical content, is perfect for such a show allowing the leitmotifs of heroes, villains, love, longing and loss to come to the fore, and the cast revel in them.

A particular treat for audiences on such nights is to be so up close and personal with the performers, able to see and appreciate ever smile, smirk, and sideways glance much better than you could ever do in a larger space, which worked particularly well for the more comedic moments. What you also get is the full power of these incredible trained and professional voices. They are impressive enough when on their own, or in duet, but when all four work together, as in the ‘Garden Scene’ from Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana, or the opening ‘The Best Of All Possible Worlds’ from Leonard Bernstein’s adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide, then the effect is visceral and wonderful.

Indeed it is ‘Candide’, arguably the quintessential picaresque novella, that seemed to infuse the spirit of the whole evening. Published in 1759, and written to satirise the central optimistic/naive tenet of the 17th century philosopher Leibniz, (paraphrased in the words of Candide’s teacher and mentor ‘Dr Pangloss’ that, “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”), its arguments against such a quixotic attitude are as relevant today as they are in any time of turmoil. With poignant references to the modern world director Sara Brodie makes sure that the spirit of Voltaire runs throughout.

Below are some pictures of the production, as well as the future dates of the tour with links as to where you can buy tickets. Don’t miss out…

With thanks to Scottish Opera for the images – Credit to Sally Jubb

Tour Dates:
Craignish Village Hall, ARDFERN, Tue 12 Feb BOOK TICKETS

Northbay Hall, ISLE OF BARRA, Thu 14 Feb BOOK TICKETS

Liniclate School, BENBECULA, Sat 16 Feb BOOK TICKETS

Tarbert Community Centre, ISLE OF HARRIS, Tue 19 Feb BOOK TICKETS

Community Hall, GAIRLOCH, Thu 21 Feb BOOK TICKETS

Community Hall, ARDROSS, Sat 23 Feb BOOK TICKETS

Volunteer Hall, DUNS, Tue 26 Feb BOOK TICKETS

Blairgowrie Town Hall, BLAIRGOWRIE, Thu 28 Feb BOOK TICKETS

Town Hall, MAYBOLE, Sat 2 Mar BOOK TICKETS

Village Hall, DURNESS, Tue 5 Mar BOOK TICKETS

Deeside Theatre, ABOYNE, Sat 9 Mar BOOK TICKETS

Boat of Garten Community Hall, BOAT OF GARTEN, Thu 7 Mar
BOOK TICKETS

Whiting Bay Village Hall, WHITING BAY, Tue 12 Mar BOOK TICKETS

Victoria Hall, DUNBLANE, Thu 14 Mar BOOK TICKETS

The Wynd Auditorium, PAISLEY, Sat 16 Mar BOOK TICKETS

Three’s Company: The Tandem Writing Collective At The Tron…


The Tron Theatre’s Victorian Room is one of the warmest and most intimate performance spaces in Glasgow. Over the years SWH! has been there for Warren McIntyre’s Seven Song Clubs, the launch of the anthology Out There, and various poetry and spoken word events. A recent, and most welcome, addition to its regular visitors are the Tandem Writing Collective who put on nights showcasing and developing new theatre. We were lucky enough to be at their most recent night where a sold-out audience had a rare old time. There were laughs, tears, tension and tunes as everyone in the room shared a rather special experience.

Tandem is the brainchild of three playwrights – Jennifer Adam, Amy Hawes and Mhairi Quinn – who have been putting on these nights in Glasgow and Edinburgh with the aim of making audiences think as they are entertained. The running order was six short pieces, two each from the writers, with a musical interlude in-between (more of which below). Their impressive cast (see bottom of page for details) have only a short rehearsal time before taking part in these “script in hand” performances. This is as fresh as theatre gets, with risks being taken from all involved, and it creates a thrilling tension in the room that you rarely get with other art forms.

The first half began with ‘Please Charge Your Glasses’ (Amy Hawes) where a wedding reception goes spectacularly wrong, and the dangers of a live mic have never been as clear. Any wedding where the spectre of pampas grass rears its head is never going to end well (and if you don’t know the reference, Google it – just not at work unless you want to be the talk of the steamie).

This was followed by ‘The Lodger’ (Mhairi Quinn), a two-hander which looked at mental health and anxiety, how it us regarded and treated, and the pressures applied by the modern world. With the psychoanalyst from hell and a patient who fears just about everything it was a wonderful example of what two fine actors, with a tight and insightful script, can do as roles become reversed. Then came Jennifer Adams’ ‘Whispers’, which all too clearly outlined how rumours and hearsay can turn quickly into something sinister, and that it’s important to remember that even when mobs rule they are still made from individuals who bring their own fears and prejudices.

The musical interlude was just perfect as sister and brother Marianne and Aaron McGregor were joined by David Munn to sing and play some clearly personal songs of love, loss, and cults. A beautiful voice, and some glorious harmonies, backed simply with great playing. It may sound simple but when it’s done this well then you don’t need anything else.

The second half kicked off with ‘Knowing Me’ (Jennifer Adam) another terrific two-hander where what begins as comedy becomes pitch black as technology turns, like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror meets Westworld. You would never use Alexa or Siri again! Then came Amy Hawes’ ‘Bathgate Murder Mystery Team-Building Weekend’ where all the cast were involved in a riotous comedy/mystery, which had salient points to make about the media, and which (knowing some people involved in such events) was pretty much spot on.

The night ended with Mahiri Quinn’s ‘Politics Of The White Stuff’, a very moving and thought provoking piece on how the current reporting of, and attitudes to, bad weather reflect class prejudice and inequality – not only of expectations but of thought, or lack of it. It was the perfect end to a night where every emotion was brought to the fore.

My advice is not to miss out on the Tandem Writing Collective if you can help it as these are exactly the sort of nights Scottish theatre needs, bringing it out of the big and expensive venues to spaces which are not just affordable, but which make for the sort of visceral experience that you just can’t get elsewhere.

Tandem at the Tron Cast

Cast: Kim Allan, Karen Bartke, Daniel Cameron, Catherine Elliot, Colin Healy and Rachel Ogilvy
Directors: Amy McKenzie and Jo Rush

Tandem on Twitter
Tandem on Facebook

*Beyond Good And Evil: A Review Of David Keenan’s For The Good Times…

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*A version of this review first appeared on the Books From Scotland website. Head there & sign up to their newsletter to never miss an issue.

As regular readers will know, David Keenan’s debut novel This Is Memorial Device was not only Scots Whay Hae!’s favourite book of 2017, but many other right-minded people’s considered choice as well. It announced his arrival as a novelist in such a barnstorming manner that you couldn’t help but wonder how he was going to follow it. Well now he has, and, as we should have expected, he does so with élan, subverting all expectations. His novel, For The Good Times, is set mainly in 1970s Northern Ireland (some memorable away days aside), slap bang in the middle of that none more euphemistically titled time, ‘The Troubles’. 

For those who lived in Ireland and the UK in the ’70s-’90s there are many of the familiar and widely reported touchstones – the H-Block prison and hunger strikes, the Europa Hotel (infamous as the most bombed hotel in the world), Republican & Loyalist groups known best by three letters, gun-fire at funerals, sectarian songs, balaclavas, bombast, and bomb-blasts. Keenan captures the time and place perfectly, not only with such knowledge and detail, but also using music, fashion, and other cultural references to great effect.

The story focuses on narrator Sammy and his closest friends, a group of young Jack the Lads who just happen to be running violent, and sometimes deadly, errands for the Provisional IRA and other offshoots if they’ll have them. Buying into the more extreme mythology of the Republican cause, these boys are playing dangerous games, with a desire to be the cock of the walk as long as that walk isn’t Orange.

Obsessed with the life and style of the singer Perry Como, and dressed in only the best of gear, violence is second nature to them justified by the belief that they are committing it for a worthy cause. To most they are seen as gangsters, thugs, and smugglers, but they have a strong sense of their own worth and shared identity. If Shane Meadows and Martin Scorsese collaborated on the film adaptation of Bernard McLaverty’s Cal then the script may have been something like this, walking the fine line between condemning, or at least demonstrating, the terrible effects of self-righteous violence, and romanticising it.

This may seem like a fairly straightforward premise but Keenan uses it to explore cultural mythology and memory, place, masculinity (toxic or otherwise), the psychology of gangs and groups, and the need for individuals to belong, but also stand-alone. Just when you think you have a grasp of what is going on and understand the essence of what you are reading, things shift just enough to discombobulate. This will not be unexpected to those who read his previous novel which showed a writer almost bursting with ideas – so many that at times what unfolded came close to being overwhelming.

For The Good Times is leaner in terms of ideas and style allowing the story and the characters more time and space to breathe. The result may be a more conventional narrative (it would have to go some not to be), but it makes for an equally satisfying read, if not more so. If you tried This Is Memorial Device and found it wasn’t for you then you should give Keenan a second chance. He’s too good a writer not to.

That’s not to say that he has dispensed with the literary flourishes altogether. There are songs, poems, and comic book stories, and not many other writers would have quotations from the aforementioned crooner Como, Aleister Crowley’s ‘The Master Therion’, and Friedrich Nietzsche. They may seem incongruous bedfellows, but all tell you something about what you are about to read. There are also séances, astral connections, perversions, and rumination on the nature of art, as well as further evidence that Keenan may have an obsession with mannequins.

All of these unexpected detours remind you that this is a writer who is pushing everyone involved out of their comfort zone. He is a player of games but with serious intent, and it forces you to ask questions about what is written, and how. In my review copy the numbers on the Contents page were all “00”. I have since found out that this isn’t deliberate, but with Keenan I wouldn’t have been surprised. With doppelgangers, the bureaucracy of institutions, betrayal, the power of sex, seduction and obsession, and the need to find an identity when others simply want you subsumed, it has clear echoes of George Orwell, Franz Kafka, John Fowles and Milan Kundera.

However, for all the artistry this novel wouldn’t work without the characters being believable, especially when they are thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Keenan shows he has a keen ear for how people speak, but to do so in an accent other than your own throws in another ball to keep in the air. It’s always a risk to take on the voices of a time and place which is so infamous, but from the first sentence to the last the mask never slips, and you absolutely believe these are lives lived. He also understands how people act in their different groups, and how they think and act when they are alone. The bold and the brave versus the insecure and uncertain – this is a world where front can literally be a matter of life and death, and makes you realise that the time and place has been chosen for good reasons.

For The Good Times is a multi-layered novel of extremes set in the most extreme of times (it is also extremely funny). It plays with form and structure, yet, for all its sensational subject matter and style, it is a keen examination of the human psyche, offering hope which is as welcome as it is surprising. But more than anything else there is a truth at the novel’s core. Every sentence – every word – is there for a reason. Clearly written from the heart it will force you to reflect on the people and places which made you, for better and for worse. For David Keenan it is another magnificent, and memorable, achievement and cements his growing reputation as one of the finest writers around.

For The Good Times is published by Faber & Faber Books

David Keenan was a recent guest on the Scots Whay Hae! podcast which you’ll find here – SWH! Podcast With David Keenan.

Paisley Patter: The SAMAs Come To Town…

One of the highlights of last year was the Scottish Alternative Music Awards night at St Luke’s in Glasgow which showcased not only the best of new Scottish music, but also how the SAMAs have grown in stature and ambition. But that was then and this is now and the SAMAs show no sign of letting up. On the 15th & 16th March they are taking over Paisley (in partnership with Renfrewshire Council and Paisley First) with the promise of events, live music, workshops, seminars & spoken word.

On Friday 15th at the Paisley Arts Centre there is a Festival Welcome with writer Chris McQueer and poet Leyla Josephine followed by music from C. Duncan + Special Guests, while over at The Bungalow the Pleasure Heads, CRYSTAL and Sweaty Palms will be taking to the stage.

The Saturday is a full and varied schedule which includes Stuart Braithwaite in conversation, live sets from Megan Airlie & Michael Timmons before the weekend finishes on a high with the inimitable Kathryn Joseph. See the poster above for the full line-up, times and venues.

Here’s what SAMA’s founder Richy Muirhead has to say about the Paisley Takeover, “The festival is jam packed with music events – we’re thrilled to add the likes of CRYSTAL who recently played a sold out King Tuts, Megan Airlie who won Best Acoustic at last year’s awards, author Chris McQueer and lots more! I hope the festival brings a burst of energy to Paisley and excites music fans around the country!

Tickets are on sale now from £7 – £12 from Eventbrite UK, SAMA’s Website:http://officialsama.co.ukand Paisley Arts Centre 0300 300 1210

For more information about the festival and SAMA’s visit: http://officialsama.co.uk @officialSAMA

Here’s footage from the Awards night at St Luke’s to give you just a taste of what the SAMAs are all about:

Talking Books & Telling Stories: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To David Keenan…

For the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer David Keenan about his latest novel For The Good Times. After the success of his previous book This Is Memorial Device, (Scots Whay Hae!‘s Book of 2017), it was always going to be fascinating to see how he would follow it, but he has done so in fine style.

The two discuss the setting of Belfast in the ’70s, the personal connections Keenan has to that time and place, and the way language shapes the story. They also consider as diverse and disparate subjects as masculinity, magic, Modernism, sectarianism, Sufism, and song, and that only scratches the surface of their conversation.

It’s always a pleasure, and an education, to listen to David Keenan as there are few writers who talk with the insight, honesty, knowledge and passion about their work as he does. So make yourself comfortable and strap in – this is a podcast not to be missed.

You can read Ali’s initial review of For The Good Times over at the excellent Books From Scotland website. A slightly longer version will appear on these pages in the coming days.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

Our next podcast will be with one of the most exciting and inventive bands around at the moment. We’ll tell you who that is very soon…

There Will Be Blood: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s Anthropocene…

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The first opera I reviewed for Scots Whay Hae! was Scottish Opera’s The Devil Inside, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp, which was a collaboration between writer Louise Welsh and composer Stuart Macrae. Not only was it a wonderful marriage between Scottish literature and opera, but it introduced me to an art form about which I had previously known little but have now come to love. With that in mind I was excited by the prospect of Welsh and Macrae’s latest opera, Anthropocene. This time around it is an original story, and knowing Louise’s written work well I expected the unexpected. What I didn’t expect was what unfolded.

One of the things I have come to learn about opera is that it is more often than not a wonderful yet visceral assault on the senses – the sights, sounds, sets, and singing combining to affect you emotionally, but also physically. This makes it the perfect platform for Welsh’s gothic sensibilities and Macrae’s memorable music. Anthropocene is a horror story set on the boat of the same name which is on an exploratory voyage into the heart of the Arctic, with the ice closing in making the disparate crew prisoners. Continue reading

Thank You For The Music: An Appreciation Of Marina Records…

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Tonight at Celtic Connections there is a timely celebration of Marina Records, a label responsible for some of my favourite albums over the years. Theirs is an interesting story. An indie-label founded by Stefan Kassel and Frank Lähnemann in 1993 in Hamburg, Marina Records became the home of some of the classiest Scottish pop music around. If ever a label should be celebrated for their auspicious work in promoting Scottish music and supporting musicians it is Marina, and this is the opportunity to do just that.

The Mitchell Theatre gig is part of the label’s 25th birthday festivities – which included the bumper anniversary compilation Goosebumps – and sees the appearance of many Marina artists, including James Kirk, Malcolm Ross, Duglas T. Stewart, The Pearlfishers, Cowboy Mouth, The Secret Goldfish, Jazzateers, The Kingfishers, The Bathers, Sugartown, Colin Steele, The Magic Circles and Starless. That is undoubtedly musical bang for your buck. Continue reading

Beat The January Rhythm & Blues: A Preview Of Celtic Connections 2019…

“January, month of empty pockets! Let us endure this evil month…”, to quote the French writer Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (currently appearing at a cinema near you). This may be a touch dramatic, but you know what she’s getting at. For me, a year doesn’t get going properly til Celtic Connections begins. A festival that never fails to deliver, and which continues to grow in terms of number of gigs, breadth of music, and stature.

This year’s headliners and more well-kent attendees include Blue Rose Code, Judy Collins, Mariza, Sharon Shannon, Mull Historical Society, Rachel Sermanni & Jarlath Henderson, Seth Lakeman, and Karine Polwart, Kris Drever & Scottish Chamber Orchestra. There are also nights featuring or celebrating musical legends, including Ronnie Spector & The RonettesVan Morrison, John Martyn, Loudon Wainwright III, and, covering many of your favourite songs, Karine Polwart’s Scottish Songbook.

However, and as ever, we’d like to point you in the direction of lesser known gems which can be found at the festival. Some of the names below you may recognise from our regular music reviews, and they all are deserving of your attention. Each one promises an unforgettable night, and what more can you ask for in these early days of 2019?

You can peruse the full programme at your leisure at Celtic Connections, and receive all the up-to-date news by following the festival on Twitter, and Facebook.  But before you rush away here is the Scots Whay Hae! guide, (complete with links to further details + tickets). We’re calling it ‘the best of the rest of the fest’…

GOOSEBUMPS: 25 Years of Marina Records (Krach Auf Wiedersehen!) and Fenella

A Wesley Chung and Caitlin Buchanan

Last Night From Glasgow: The Gracious Losers and L-space (acoustic)

The Sweetheart Revue and Headcloud

Zoe Graham and John Edge & The Kings of Nowhere

Withered Hand

Broken Chanter and Jill O’Sullivan

Henry & Fleetwood

Carla J. Easton and Mark McGowan

Andrew Wasylyk and support

Olive Grove Records Showcase: Chrissy Barnacle, Pocket Knife, Moonsoup, Circle Meets Dot and Jared Celosse

Aidan Moffat & RM Hubbert with Marry Waterson & Emily Barker

Hope to see you at at least one of the above…

Hearts & Minds: A Review Of Beerjacket’s Silver Cords…

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It was an interesting development in Scottish writing that two of the most talked about books from the end of 2018 were published by record labels – Stephen Watt & Friends poetry collection MCSTAPE on Last Night From Glasgow, and Beerjacket’s Silver Cords on Scottish Fiction. There are good and understandable reasons for this. The former contains poems about all manner of music related experiences, many of which were written by some of Scotland’s best known musicians, while Beerjacket’s Silver Cords is not only a book of short stories and lyrics, but also the name of the accompanying CD  – his first collection of new songs for some years. However, you can’t help but wonder if this music/publishing industry crossover is, in some small way, a sign of things to come.

If you have listened to the recent SWH! Podcast interview with Beerjacket (also known as Peter Kelly) then you will know much of this. What you won’t have is a clear idea of just what the book Silver Cords is like. Musicians have tried their hand at fiction before with varying degrees of success. For every Nick Cave’s And The Ass Saw The Angel or Louise Wener’s The Half Life of Stars there’s more than a few which rank (rotten) alongside Bruce Dickinson’s The Adventures Of Lord Iffy Boatrace or Morrissey’s List of the Lost. Taking that in to account an understandable question must be, “Is Silver Cords any good?” Well, I’m here to tell you not to worry. The short answer is undoubtedly, “Yes”. The longer answer begins below. Continue reading

New Musical Success: The Best New Music From The Last Month…

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While putting together the SWH! Tracks Of The Year Spotify playlist for 2018 it became clear that it had been a hell of a year for music with each month bringing new and exciting tunes. It might be a new year but the great music keeps coming and the first review of 2019 more than makes that point.

It sees the return of some SWH! favourites as well as others new to these pages. There’s Americana, rock ‘n’ roll, psychedelic pop, indie-folk, lo-fi funk, beautiful balladry, and more. No matter what your taste we are sure you’ll find something which suits you. Celebrate good times, come on!

We are going to kick off with the return of Sister John. Their debut release Returned From Sea was one of the finest albums of 2017, introducing a band who arrived fully-formed and who have music in their very souls.  Their latest album, also called Sister John, is released on the 25th January on Last Night From Glasgow, but from it the song ‘I’m The One’ is out now and it’s a doozy. There’s a distinct CBGB’s/Bowery vibe going on – imagine The Velvet Underground’s ‘Rock & Roll’ sung by a chilled-out Patti Smith and you’ll have some idea. With understated rhythm and twangy guitar backing Amanda McKeown’s soulful vocals it’s a lesson that when it comes to music to move you less is almost always more. The accompanying video is a thing of joy as well. This is ‘I’m The One’ – Let’s dance!:

Continue reading