The Yellow on the Broom

It's just four years since Pitlochry Festival Theatre put on a production of Anne Downie's 1989 play The Yellow On The Broom, based on the autobiographical novel by Betsy Whyte about Scotland's Travellers in the 1930s. Given that it's a workmanlike script rather than a classic – notable more for its subject matter than anything remotely poetic – you might well ask why Dundee Rep's Artistic Director Andrew Panton has chosen to revive it again so soon.

A mix of traditional music and new compositions by John Kiely successfully underscores a sense of community and culture.

The obvious answer is that it's been a hell of a four years, and the play's focus on the treatment of migrants and minority ethnic communities strikes a significantly different tone in our Brexited, Trumped 2018, one that was almost unimaginable during VisitScotland's "Year of Homecoming" in 2014. The play highlights the hand-to-mouth, itinerant life of one particular Traveller family effectively enough, as they move from one site of agricultural labour to the next; what's more toxic now is the constant risk of hostility, bigotry and simple hatred that can come from landowners, police or local school-children.

Both Whyte and Downie offer some colour, of course; one of the Travellers we see in passing is indeed a drunken thief, while the reality of domestic abuse (talk of a woman beaten by her husband because she once sat with her legs apart) isn't outrightly condemned. Also, main character Bessie and her parents do occasionally benefit from the kindness of strangers: not least the support of an encouraging headmaster, who recognises the Traveller's culture as part of Scotland's history; or the friendship of a Jacobite-obsessed laird largely mocked and rejected by his own class for being damned "eccentric".

"Memory, unlike people, cannot be contained," says the older Bessie, played with reliable strength by Rep veteran Ann Louise Ross; but Panton’s decision to split Bessie's role in two, with the charismatic Chiara Sparkes as the young girl in most of the action (while Ross narrates and observes from the side) doesn't quite work as a theatrical representation of memory. Having some cast-members in multiple roles – Irene Macdougall plays seven parts, at one point switching from vindictive school-girl to bigoted teacher mid-scene – while focusing our attention on the Townsley family, nevertheless undercuts the wider community they're in.

Kenneth MacLeod's set – a natural amphitheatre – is initially impressive, but also limiting when long journeys on foot are represented by the cast wandering its circumference. A mix of traditional music and new compositions by John Kiely successfully underscores a sense of community and culture. But the play’s unavoidably episodic nature, as we follow the Townsley family through the seasons, strangely lacks impetus, with a succession of dramatic moments ultimately just not joined up strongly enough.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

Multiple Venues

Nests

★★★
Dundee Rep Theatre / Macrobert Arts Centre

The Yellow on the Broom

★★★
Underbelly, Bristo Square

Tom Neenan: It's Always Infinity

★★★★
Assembly George Square Studios

Police Cops in Space

★★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Rik Carranza: Still a Fan

★★★★
Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre

Marmite

★★★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

Adapted from Betsy Whyte’s beloved autobiography, The Yellow on the Broom is a heartfelt, funny, and rich account of human endeavour. Filled with music, song, and an array of vibrant characters, Bessie's story both passionately tells of her life and vividly portrays the prejudice faced by Travellers. In 1930s Perthshire, Bessie Townsley is growing up in the Travelling community. Her mother and father teach her the ways of the land, but their lifestyle is under threat. With winter approaching, the family settle in Brechin for the season. There, Bessie must attend 100 days of compulsory schooling and although she shows promise in the classroom, the travelling life she adores is viciously attacked by those around her.