Review: Armour: a Herstory of the Scottish Bard ****

Musicals & Opera

Armour: a Herstory of the Scottish Bard

The Space@ Jurys Inn, v260

14.10 (ends 25 August, not Sundays)

**** (4 stars)

A fascinating new musical from Fearless Players – book, music and lyrics by Shonagh Murray – which looks at what might have happened had Robert Burns’ widow, Jean Armour Burns, ever met Nancy Maclehose, the celebrated “Clarinda’ to whom many of Burns’ love lyrics were dedicated, and for whom he wrote Ae Fond Kiss, one of the most poignant love-and-loss songs ever penned.

We are introduced to the story by Sarah, whose mother has died and whose father has sent her home from India to live with her gran, who just happens to be Rab’s widow. Sarah, a lively girl who loves singing, is quick and bright but gets an awfu’ head when she has to deal with numbers. Her granny both encourages her and urges her to take control of her own life – to be a DOer, not to sit and wait for life to come to her and then find it’s passed her by. Jean herself has had to be a doer in the wake of Rabbie’s death, to protect herself and her mementoes of her husband from the scavenging vultures who come round to grab what they can find. She is surprised to receive a letter from Mrs McLean inviting her to visit her in Edinburgh: at first she is minded to refuse, but then decides to accept – she can also go and visit the posh mausoleum erected to house her husband’s body which, along with that of her son, was moved there without her having any say in the matter…

Mrs McLean is delighted to introduce Jean to someone who is becoming known for her own poetry – Mrs Maclehose. Oblivious to the icy chill between the two women, chatters insanely and then flits away, leaving the two staring at each other and occasionally addressing frigidly polite remarks to each other. Jean is later invited to take tea with Nancy – at first she refuses to think of going, but then changes her mind. It’s a fascinating encounter, as the ice begins to thaw between the two women [under the influence of more than one dram] – but this happy state of affairs doesn’t last…

It’s a fascinating show, with an interesting script and score, which uses the words and music of some of Burns’ songs, but which also contains more contemporary-sounding numbers. Some of these are fine, but I found Nancy’s self-exculpating ballad about her husband’s betrayal of her struck a jarring note in an otherwise good score. Lori Flannigan is excellent as Jean – proud and fiercely defensive of her husband and his memory, determined to keep going and stay strong, and very loving towards her bairns and grandbairns. Lydia Davidson does an excellent job as Nancy – equally proud of her relationship with Burns, but also concerned to protect her reputation: she also doubles as Jean’s maid Beth. Bethany Tennick does a splendid job as the lively Sarah, words tumbling out of her mouth as she tells her granny about school, her best frienemy, her teacher, and the new songs she’s learned, while also doubling as the social airhead Mrs McLean and Nancy’s young maid Agnes: she also plays a mean mandolin! Each of the three women has an excellent singing voice [as one would expect from graduates of the Scottish Conservatoire] and makes the most of their solos: when the three voices join in trios something extra special is created.

The set is extremely simple, and movement very well-managed in a minute playing space – there is even dancing! It’s a fascinating investigation into the feelings of two of the most important women in Robert Burns’ life: there may not be a word of truth in it, but it makes for fascinating theatre!

Mary Woodward