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The Electrifying Mr Johnston review at Studio Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘nuanced, but lacking in tension’

The case of The Electrifying Mr Johnston at Studio Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Calum Hall
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The titular Mr Johnston of Robert Dawson Scott’s nuanced historical play was a one-time Red Clydesider who joined Churchill’s war cabinet as secretary of State for Scotland.

Dawson Scott doesn’t quite solve the problem of finding dramatic momentum in a biographical play, however, and at just an hour, it feels too short, leaving much unsaid about the man and what drove him.

It’s better at exploring its main topic, Johnston’s creation of the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board and hydro schemes across the nation, and shows his journey from politicking in Cabinet through to his post-war work in the Scottish civil service as he brings his vision to fruition.

As Johnston is a little-remembered figure, actor Stephen Clyde has a blank canvas to play with. He creates a knowing, punctilious man whose ambitions are for the common good, not his own self-advancement.

The tension comes from Alan MacKenzie as a (fictional) priggish student-turned-journalist whose own left-wing politics remain unflinching as he watches his one-time hero fail to live up to his expectations. Beth Marshall is on brilliant form as the remaining characters, including a spot-on portrait of the Queen.

Director Alasdair McCrone brings a real clarity to his production and the fine comic timing of the company enhances Dawson Scott’s wry humour. The play also feels timely in the way it reveals – and positively revels in – the dark art of political deal-making.

 

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Verdict
Nuanced historical play about the fabrication of modern Scotland that lacks dramatic tension
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