It was a long and winding road, but by the time I left David Colvin’s Thunderstruck, I was – well. It does what it says on the tin. In getting there, though, we seemed to pass through several different shows. Was it an introduction to bagpipes for an international audience? A music lesson? An auto-biographical solo show exposing the hazing and alcoholism rife in the piping world? A hagiography? A concert? All of the above?

You’ll never look at a bagpipe the same way again

Colvin’s triple subjects are the bagpipes, himself, and Gordon Duncan, a legendary but controversial bagpiper who revolutionised the instrument before taking his own life in 2005, at the young age of 41. Given the centrality of the instrument to both Colvin and Duncan’s lives, it makes sense to start with some introduction which is the point at which you will suddenly realise why exactly you’ve never heard a bagpipe indoors before. It is LOUD, and the three-piece band backing Colvin is mixed to match. If extremely loud noise is a deal-breaker for you, turn back now.

The groundwork laid, we proceed into the tale of Colvin’s love of the pipes and constant bullying by the older boys in the band, alongside his school band’s ascent into travelling the world-class competition circuit and the brushes with Duncan he had. Colvin tells the beginning of the story like a comedy, a hard line to draw when bullying and alcohol feature so prominently, though the comedy slowly fades away as the violence escalates. The story also complicates Duncan, introducing him with outrageous anecdotes of piping escapades (“all true,” the Gordon Duncan Memorial Trust cheerfully claims) before shading into more personal stories of encountering both Duncan’s genius and alcoholism up close, in the sort of glancing encounters whose memory is entirely one sided. Colvin imbues his tale of first seeing Duncan play with and deep pathos.

Colvin’s performance is strong and his stories are absolutely worth hearing, but his pacing left me a bit confused. The early part of the show felt weighed down by exposition – including an extremely drawn-out bit explaining the acceptability of the word ‘cunt’ in his home county of Fife clearly targeted at an tourist audience. By the end however, I was struggling to keep up with the complexity of his timeline and feelings as the focus of the show shifted from his own experience writ large to specifically his memories of Duncan. The emotion was absolutely there, but I’d be hard pressed to recount the tale in order.

The song that gives the show its name and elicits the titular feeling is an AC/DC tune which Duncan adapted for the pipes, in Colvin’s words “transforming them into a heavy metal electric guitar.” While the effect is perhaps less shocking than it was when Duncan premiered the tune – the Red Hot Chili Pipers have built a global career on the same premise – it is no less stunning. You’ll never look at a bagpipe the same way again.

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Reviews by Alex Bailey Dillon

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The Blurb

Thunderstruck is an international award-winning production concerning the legacy and mythology of a Pitlochry bin man, who flew beyond the summit of his art and changed Scottish music forever by defying established tradition and pushing to the absolute edge of what was possible. Take whatever romantic notions you have of the bagpipes and leave them at the door. Herald Angel and Scottish Arts Club award-winning show returns to Edinburgh. Written by David Colvin. Directed by Tom Freeman. ***** ( ***** ( ***** ( Adelaide Theatre and Perth Theatre Awards 2020. Mervyn Stutter's Pick of the Fringe 2022.

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