Why has the Wildcat theatre company been denied funding? After watching their new version of The Gun, Colin Donald questions the wisdom of the Scottish Arts Council's decision
There are criticisms to be made of Wildcat's revived version of its youthful underclass opera, The Gun, now touring Scotland, but the production flatly contradicts the Scottish Arts Council view that the company is ripe for the knacker's yard. Anyone involved in the debate now raging about the future of arts funding in Scotland should see it, and decide for themselves on the SAC's competence to direct the vital sphere of touring theatre.
First the theory, then the practice. Wildcat's defence against the decision to cut its funding lifeline is based on its unique cultivation of "popular", ie working class, audiences. If it could be proved that other companies are producing work that brought in habitual absentees from the theatre experience, then the prevailing SAC view that Wildcat are "tired and old-fashioned" and "not artistically compelling" would have some relevance.
If not, then the tastes and prejudices of those now managing the decline of touring theatre in Scotland should be overruled by their duty to nurture the broadest spectrum of theatre provision, serving all sections of the Scottish public.
Of course, the sociological study of audience make-up is a complex and sensitive business. What can be asserted with complete confidence is that a piece like The Gun is addressing a particular audience (teenage, street-wise) and a subject (drugs and drug-related violence) in an aggressive, engagingly comic style that none of the SAC's other revenue-funded clients get close to. In terms of the magnitude of the issue, and the show's potential to make a difference, it may be the most important piece of theatre seen in Scotland this year.
Dave Anderson's musical, co-produced with and accompanied by Sounds of Progress, a band of able-bodied and special needs musicians, tells the story of Sando (Keith Warwick), an artful Drumchapel dodger whose romantic aspirations, and hedonistic dope, ecstasy and alcopop lifestyle, are threatened by the arrival of a big-league heroin dealer. Mannie is on a mission to recruit users for his gangster boss, and his product cuts a swathe of destruction through the housing scheme. The developing tragedy is watched with wry detachment by Slapper (Dave Anderson), a crossword-loving recluse with a concealed interest in the well-being of Sando and friends.
It is an original conception of what the musical form can be used for, and the mixture of clever, witty lyrics and inspired pastiches of familiar musical forms (rap, reggae, French accordion ballad) coats bitter and tragic subject matter with sharp, uplifting irony.
Uniform costumes and hand-held microphones give the performers an unconventional relation to the audience, and by recruiting actors from youth theatres, the company is addressing an age range that not many theatre practitioners of their experience are inclined to bother with.
Dealing unpatronisingly with this material is a considerable feat, risking accusations of seeming fuddy duddy that Wildcat defuses by incorporating them in the script.
Dave Anderson and director David Maclennan have not pulled any punches in striving for authenticity in the housing scheme setting. The language is uncompromisingly strong, although the violence and drug abuse are either stylised or not shown directly.
The piece is admirably lacking in melodrama. Its drawback for young people is that it is politically concerned with showing how social policy has impoverished housing scheme life, but is notably short on suggesting positive solutions. Perhaps the further adventures of Sando, projected by the company, will suggest ways to break out of the nihilistic patterns portrayed here so vividly. Here's hoping that Wildcat lives long enough to present them.
Wildcat, tel: 0141 420 3151