Remember Tam o'Shanter's mare

1st May 2009 at 01:00
When Hopscotch theatre group toured its new production of Burns's poem, some schools were better prepared than others

It is bad for an actor to be typecast. But a whole theatre company? Although 18 years in the business, Hopscotch has made its knuckles sore, banging on the doors of grant-awarding bodies with little result. Though few give it money - it counts East Renfrewshire, Aberdeenshire and East Lothian among its friends - it is the darling of thousands and has thrived on the headteachers' freedom to buy direct in the arts.

Sometimes, they think "cheerfulness" is their downfall. If so, they are unrepentant. "Why shouldn't you learn with a smile on your face?" they ask. They have a point, especially in their last tour of Tam o' Shanter, which was brought back, in part at least, for the year of Homecoming and the 250th anniversary of Burns's birth. It was their third adaptation.

Guided by director Rosina Bonsu, the two actors explored the drama of the story and the possibilities of audience interaction. So the children were the market traders in Ayr that day, shouting themselves conveniently dry before the boozing started. They were the whistling wind in the storm on the road, and in the ruined kirk they clapped the rhythms and danced the reels and strathspeys.

For the rest of the time, the irrepressible Ross Stenhouse, the company's artistic director, and Michelle Sichi declaimed the lines and gave bravura impressions of the other characters, animals and items of furniture. Some of the episodes were more "actable" than others, and got more time. What with the participation and the dramatic plums, the surge and drive of this classic poem was well dislocated, and the reading time of 10 minutes extended to a playing time of 40.

This would be of little concern to an audience who knew the story and could concentrate on enjoying the performance. This was how Hopscotch had conceived it and, to that end, had sent a copy of the poem to every school, asking that their audience would come prepared. Virtually everywhere this happened, almost frighteningly so at one school where, at question time after the performance, Stenhouse grew alarmed - "I thought I was on Mastermind."

Another part of the original plan was that the performance would take place in the classroom. By whatever name we know the law of educational mischance, the school where I saw the performance, brought its P5-7s together to the hall, without the benefit of reading them the poem beforehand. The actors' hearts must have quailed at the beginning, when only a handful of children were confident they knew the author.

At question time, they could expect to be asked, as in many schools, why they told a story full of words nobody could understand. Rather less welcome was the query, "Was Tam o' Shanter the name of the horse or the man?" But in the circumstances, neither the questioner nor the company was to blame.

T: 0141 440 2025.

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