Socialist theatre company 7:84 toured Scotland in 1973 with a popular, political play that would take on an iconic status.
Written by the company’s founder and artistic director John McGrath, The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil swept through Scottish history.
It begins with the Highland Clearances, when the landowners brutally “cleared” the land of poor crofters to make way for sheep, to the discovery of North Sea Oil.
The show combined narrated history, drama, biting satire, music hall comedy and political polemic with the Scottish ceilidh tradition—social gatherings with live music and dancing.
Its success was legendary. McGrath wrote of his play, “People love the comedy, the music, the variety.
“But particularly they love the fact that it is saying something about Scotland today, something direct and passionate.”
There’s no lack of passion in this new staging by the Dundee Rep theatre. Directed by Joe Douglas, the piece is brought vividly to life by a fine Rep ensemble which includes the superb actor-musician Alasdair Macrae and a live band.
The production is lively, humorous and unashamed in its class politics.
A highlight of the show is the scene with the hated Duke of Sutherland, who has made a fortune from the Clearances.
He tries to recruit Highlanders for the British war effort in Crimea. One brave soul steps forward and says, “Since you have preferred sheep to men, let sheep now defend you.”
Given the political ferment in Scotland the play seemed ripe for updating.
But disappointingly there is little new material brought to McGrath’s 42 year old script.
A very brief joke about last year’s independence referendum and a comedy skit depicting David Cameron on holiday hardly amount to a contemporary cutting edge.
A standing ovation on the opening night proves that The Cheviot has lost none of its popular appeal.
But you can’t help but feel that, with a more topical script, this excellent production would pack a bigger political punch.