Brian Ferguson in Anything That Gives Off Light
Brian Ferguson in Anything That Gives Off Light
© Mihaela Bodlovic

Inside this great sprawl of drama, there is a really good play struggling to get out. Which is frustrating, because this is the major commission of the Edinburgh International Festival, from a combination of the Brooklyn-based The TEAM and the National Theatre of Scotland.

That transatlantic co-production, though exciting on paper, might just be part of the problem. So might the fact that five people - the actors Jessica Almasy, Brian Ferguson and Sandy Grierson, and the director Rachel Chavkin and the associate director Davey Anderson - share the writing credit. In trying to make the link between Scotland and the Appalachians, between the problems of identity suffered by today's Scots and the descendants of the diaspora, this devised show simply spreads itself too thin.

Yet its opening 20 minutes are utterly entrancing. We first meet Brian (Ferguson) standing in a patch of earth inside what looks like a community centre, flexing his arms, wiggling his legs. "I'm calibrating my Scottishness," he announces, to the amused disdain of his friend Iain (Grierson), who has remained in Scotland while Brian has left for London. They try out various poses - hunched against the rain, pouring whisky down their throats, sipping whisky like an old-timer, rolling drunk like "the leery middle-class."

Enter a band, and a sad woman who may or may not be called Red and who appears to have left her husband in the middle of their second honeymoon. She's from West Virginia, and demands an explanation of Scottish history. And then we are off and running, through a brilliant,whirligig chat about the myths created by Walter Scott, the horrible history of Culloden and the land clearances of the 18th century.

All of this is framed as part of a road trip to bury the ashes of Brian's Granny Mac, a natural radical who made the boys believe that the right to demonstrate and throw eggs at police cars was part of growing up. It's beautifully staged (strong hints of Black Watch) and wonderfully performed, full of rich jokes about the Scottish liking for a loser's ending. "If Dirty Dancing were made in Scotland it would end when they put baby in the corner," Red remarks, wryly.

But when the story telling expands across the Atlantic, it loses its way; the political themes that have been rooted in the lives and opinions of these three very appealing characters, overwhelm them. Their individuality gets lost in the hugeness of environmental collapse - the actual stage (designed by Nick Vaughan) suffers the same fate, as the room literally disintegrates. The specific becomes too generic.

There are still great moments - I loved Almasy's rendition of "I Have My Stories in a Bag Around My Neck" which sounds like an authentic folk song - but the vigour of the story-telling cannot compensate for its loss of focus.

Anything That Gives Off Light runs at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre until 26 August.

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