Selling theatre tickets is a lot easier with a familiar name to promote. It does not matter whether it is an actor, the writer or play title, as long as it is familiar. So Alasdair McCrone and Robert Paterson, writer and director respectively for Mull Theatre, and their co-producers Perth Theatre, could be sure they were on to a good thing when they decided on a stage version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped.
And so it proved. The production that opened in Perth last September played its last performance at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh after a tour of Scotland that had been almost as eventful as David Balfour's kidnap, shipwreck and escape, and equally demanding of stamina and endurance, with only a cast of seven and the technical team to carry around the stage props. Three large wooden cases, with ingenious design and much pushing about, served as the streets of Edinburgh, the sailing ship Covenant, the house of Shaws and a fair few miles of the Highlands. Alas, they would have made better theatre for a play with a more settled story than Stevenson's picaresque chase.
With the play's momentum constantly interrupted by the short scenes, further slowed by the furniture moving, it was a shrewd idea to keep violinist Alan Davidson on stage. Indeed, he proved indispensable. Playing against his own recorded soundtrack, he sewed the disjointed stagecraft together, covering the time and the noise of the scene-shifting and adding invaluable mood music to the climaxes of the story which otherwise might well have failed without him.
The downside was that the volume of the amplified music was at odds with the human voice, even though the cast roared their way through the arguments and storms and across the spaces of the story. Maybe they were making the most of their moments on stage, because the actors were called on to play 17 named roles, and several more unnamed, with hardly time in between to change their breeks and jackets.
Necessarily, too many of these roles were too fleeting to forge a relationship with a theatre audience, though Alan Steele did well with his Ebenezer Balfour (spiced with his John Grieve undertones) and his ringingly spoken Cluny. The ever-present David Fitzgerald fared better as the dour, Protestant David Balfour but Andrew Clark as Alan Breck, the very forgivable Catholic turncoat, had all the best lines and dashingly made the very most of them.
Nevertheless, and intending no offence, this was never more than a prime example of English teachers' theatre. It was a pop-up book of the story. It was a splendid teaching aide for those studying the book or a nostalgic revisiting of a good read, but it never aspired to the art of theatre.
Where the novel has the involvement of the first person narrative, the drama had the disinterest of spectacle. Where Stevenson has the excitement of the manhunt, even to the troop galloping across Rannoch Moor, the play had on occasion nothing more than the mildly risible running on and off the stage.
Though the text was an honest representation of the story and would have worked well enough on the small or large screen, putting a novel in the theatre demands the alchemy of stagecraft. This version was all the more disappointing coming so soon after Wee Stories Theatre's version of Stevenson's Treasure Treasure, when their transforming imagination made marvellous theatre with no loss to the book.