Mad dash through prehistory;Arts

1st October 1999 at 01:00
PICTS!. Hopscotch Theatre Company. Touring until late November.

Hopscotch leaves no stone unturned as it pursues Scottish comedy history. This time the stones are huge, incised with curlicues, and part of Trish Kenny's useful and portable scenery for Picts!, the rumbustious history of people who were here, like Bernard Miles's railway station, "afore the Romans come".

The text, as always, is by Ross Stenhouse, which is a guarantee that every known fact on the topic will be said, sung or mimed by somebody within 55 minutes, that the history will be impartial, and that Brude MacMaelchon, King of the Picts, will ask Columba for a mackerel instead of a miracle.

The extraordinary success that Hopscotch has enjoyed over the years has been built on these fast-moving, child-centred romps through history, directed by Grant Smeaton. So established is the house-style that Smeaton can now revisit his acting career and hand direction to a former Hopscotch player, Elly Goodman, who has no difficulty in persuading her four actors to swop hats in a comic scamper through 500 years of mostly violent history.

Companies like Hopscotch annihilate any delusions about the glamour of theatre. They are out every morning in the van for a 9.30 start, to rouse a primary school to pantomime rowdiness and then compete with them for an hour. Some light applause, a "three cheers" from the headteacher, then on to the next show to do it all over again. Amazingly, they keep a freshness, "but not before half past nine," warns Raymond Short, who plays Broichan the Druid and skulks inventively behind the menhirs to entertain the school as it files in.

"The children keep you fresh, always reacting in unexpected ways," explains Pauline Goldsmith. "This audience (Westerton primary in Bearsden) was the first to boo me when I came on as Kenneth Macalpin to unite Scotland". And that even though she was brandishing those two defining icons, Irn Bru and a fish supper.

But Picts! never takes sides, though Ross Stenhouse paints a good image for what is theatrically speaking a very unpromising people, who went as mysteriously as they had come, doing remarkably little in between, only leaving a few names and stones.

The message is that the Picts are part of us. If their stones are inscrutable, we must guess what they mean. How much children understand from this production, only teachers know. Some learning is smuggled into the mind, like emblems carved on the stones: in another of Grant Smeaton's effective little ditties, Hugh J Larkin leads a song where the chorus adds on salmon, moon, comb, arrow with appropriate movements. It's no wonder Hopscotch has a full order book.

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