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The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil review at Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘swagger and fire’

The cast of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil at lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Tommy Ga Ken-Wan
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In 1973 John McGrath and the 7:84 theatre company changed the face of Scottish theatre with The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. It toured Scotland’s outlying communities while drawing on big populist theatre forms – pantomime, music hall and the humble ceilidh – to speak to its audiences on matters of direct relevance to them.

Joe Douglas’ revival at Dundee Rep last year, the first for 20 years, caught the original’s sense of irreverence and added a slender strand of contemporary relevance. This remounting, designed to tour mid-scale proscenium theatres, takes a step further away from the ceilidh format and has more new material.

If anything, this increases the show’s immediacy. Billy Mack ensures that the pantomime elements have an even stronger feel, compensating for the loss of intimacy in the scaling up of the show. Steven Bangs, too, knows how to milk those moments of connection between stage and audience.

Irene Macdougal is the linchpin, a commanding performer who leads and guides through the direct addresses and agitprop passages – making light of her changes of tone as she switches between declamation and aside. Emily Winter and Jo Freer lead a hard-working ensemble who all deserve recognition.

When it comes to updating, the best realised elements are those reflecting the last year’s events – Trump and the oil industry’s collapse. If they could go further still – land ownership, the real issue of the play, is a hot political topic that demands more direct attention – it still speaks loud and clear.

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Political theatre delivered with the swagger of pantomime and the fire of social justice