Singing their way to the Dome

THE last week of the summer term and 24 primary 7 pupils from across West Lothian are packed into the mini dome which sits atop Cairnpapple Hill, the highest point in the county.

Built by Historic Scotland to protect the ancient graves on one of Scotland's most important archaeological sites, the concrete shelter acts as a brilliant echo chamber for these young singer-performers who are to represent their county in the McDonald's Our Town Story project at the Millennium Dome on September 5.

Beginning with their show's title song "From the Top of Cairnpapple", they entertain the site warden and sundry visitors with an impromptu concert. In three days they have given 10 public and school performances to more than 1,500 people and today they have already treated the lunchtime munchers at the drive-thru McDonald's in Livingston to another song from the show, "The West Lothian Rap", because by now they just can't stop singing wherever they go.

It's taken six months to bring the show together. Myself (as writer) and the show's director Scott Johnston began by visiting a dozen primary schools across the county to workshop ideas and to listen to pupils' stories. Asking young people what they knew about the county which gave birth to the House of Stewart, Mary Queen of Scots, chloroform and the world's oil industry was to elicit some wonderful congruities.

"This area was the hunting ground of the Scottish kings," a proud young Livingstonian rightly declared while his classmate added: "Aye, me and ma Dad still go out wi' the ferret."

More than 250 pupils auditioned for the show in February this year. What excited them all more than anything, committing them to Friday afternoon stage discipline and weekend rehearsals, was not the prospect of a three-day trip to London or the chance to see the Dome. No, the major cheer was given - each and every time - to the announcement that at the Dome they would be fed on free McDonalds . . .

It was perhaps the parents who were more drawn to the "Fame" school idea in the way that theatrical parents are (and all parents, let's face it, can be theatrical). During the two days of auditions the atmosphere among them was tene to say the least.

Packing more than 4,000 years of history into a 20-minute show (stipulated Dome time) involved putting the kids in an all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting pressure cooker which called upon the services of choreographer Ethelinda Lashley-Johnston and composer-musician Gordon Dougall, both well-schooled in working with young people, the latter running Strathclyde Orchestral Productions, whose members are young people with disabilities.

Asking the schools audiences what they had learnt from the show about West Lothian elicited a variety of worthy replies, perhaps the most notable from the lad (quoting a line from the show) who said: "I learnt that West Lothian is a state of mind." I'm not sure what extension work his teacher could do on that as a topic.

But the best response came spontaneously from one of the P7 performers as we were bobbing down Cairnpapple to the awaiting bus."You know, before we did the show," he suddenly chirped out of the blue, "I thought that Silicon Glen was a guy's name". Perhaps ICT still has a long way to go.

On the morning the Dome people came up to see the show there was some consternation among the cast due to an announcement on the previous night's Newsnight programme that, because of continuing losses, the Dome might close on September 4 - the day before our two scheduled performances and that of the West Lothian Schools Brass Band.

We were assured, however, the Dome would still be open. Too much egg on the Government's face, its responsibility to local authorities which have yet to have their day in the Dome, etc etc. It's all about priorities, we were told.

Venerable cooncillors promised to move heaven and earth to get local MPs Robin Cook and Tam Dalyell along - which should be fun as Tam is an inveterate enemy of all things Dome. Still, he might enjoy his mention in the West Lothian Rap:

"This is the county of Tam Dalyell Loves Westminster, we can tell."

If disaster did strike and the show didn't go on it would be a tragedy for the cast. As one wee face asked forlornly, "Would that mean we wouldnae get our free McDonalds?" Of course they will. It's all about priorities.

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