The Fringe’s late-summer position in the calendar means that few of those who visit the Scottish capital ever experience one particular form of indigenous theatre — pantomime. Yes, you can find it in theatres the length and breadth of the British Isles every Christmas, but there’s a particular Scottish accent to the ones in Edinburgh, Glasgow and even beyond the Central Belt.
The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant mines some of that great theatrical tradition, and not just because the cast includes Elaine C Smith (as Banshee), who has numerous King’s Glasgow pantomimes on her CV. From the off, Paul J Corrigan as Bogle is interacting with the audience, encouraging louder and louder responses; the energy of the acting and the broadly painted characters and storyline would do any Scottish panto proud. I do not mean anything negative by that comparison.
The same goes for pointing out that the roots of Scottish literature — not least the ballads and fireside stories that enraptured Burns, Scott, Buchan and a host of writers down the centuries — have featured faerie folk and supernatural creatures either intruding into the domain of men or luring innocents into strange faraway worlds. The central conceit of Alan Bissett’s new play — that a host of supernatural creatures might suddenly take an interest in the coming Referendum on Scottish Independence — is therefore wonderfully Scottish.
One Hogmanay “after the bells”, Bogle (a spritely Corrigan) welcomes into his home three guests — the dour Banshee (all West-coast wifie), sultry Selkie (a shimmering Michele Gallagher) and the demonic Black Donald (Martin McCormick). Despite protestations against talk of politics and religion, the issue of the Referendum soon arises, along with the realisation that a Yes-voting Scotland turning away from its past could mean the world becoming “too real” for the Faerie folk to survive in. So, following an Emergency congress of the Parliament of Scottish Faeries, it’s decided that the supernatural creatures will assist the “Just Say Naw” Better Together campaign; not through the grief of history (as the Banshee suggests) or seduction (as the Selkie believes), but through fear. As Black Donald tells the crowd, they need to exploit people’s insecurities. “Too wee, too poor, too stupid.”
It’s been said by some writers that no great drama can come out of being “issue led”, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as being great theatre. No one involved in The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant — here on the Fringe thanks to crowdsourced funding — is sitting on the fence when it comes to the Referendum, but there is plenty to enjoy in this show even if you don’t agree with some of its political points and assumptions: undoubted passion and commitment, a staging which is sufficient to make the points needed and Bissett’s ear for the vernacular that’s at times poetic, crass and both at the same time.
By including a straw poll of voting intentions as part of the show, it would appear that The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant is preaching largely to the converted. But, thankfully, not for the most part by being offputtingly preachy.