by Margaret Chrystall
THERE’S a vivid picture of life on the road with Mull Theatre Company when the artistic director takes a few minutes to talk ... from a laundrette.
"You may hear the occasional swoosh of my smalls," laughed Alasdair McCrone, who directs the show and is also acting in The Drawer Boy which comes to Eden Court on Monday.
The play – set in Canada with a cast of three – has already toured with some success last year.
Alasdair explained: "It really went down very well.
"And we were only on the road for a month last year so we thought ‘This is a show that deserves to go further’.
"We really enjoyed doing it and it also was a hit with the people we work with, both promoters and audiences.
"The feedback from them was outstanding and backed up what we already had sussed, that this play is quite special."
Written by Michael Healey in 1999, The Drawer Boy has become one of the most-produced plays in Canadian theatre history.
Based on a real-life Canadian project, the plot has a young actor from a Toronto theatre group visiting the rural home of two elderly bachelor farmers to "research" farm life for a new play. He soon finds himself discovering in their personal stories a bittersweet tale.
Alasdair explained: "We do a lot of commissioning of new writing and that’s always great fun and challenging. It’s wonderful when you lay your hands on a script where the words just sail off the page – there’s a truth in them.
"This is a play that’s been finely tuned by the writer – and love just shines out of it.
"It was done in Glasgow a few years ago and we were on the lookout for a feelgood play, perfect for the autumnal time when the clocks are going back, to make people feel positive.
"But we didn’t just want a comedy, but something that was going to have a bit of body to it.
"This was suggested to me as a piece I should have a look at.
"It’s hilarious in places and I think audiences surprise themselves at times.
"You are expecting it to be quite strong and emotional and very moving – and it’s all of that – but throughout the play there are huge laughs too."
Alasdair plays Angus who has had brain damage and lost his short-term memory. Morgan – played by Barrie Hunter – looks after Angus. And James Mackenzie takes over from last tour’s Kevin Lennon as the young actor Myles.
Alasdair said: "I’m an actor, that’s my background, but I also direct.
"With Mull Theatre, I tend to put my acting boots on once every few years just to remind myself what it is actually about," he laughed.
"I think if I’m continually sending people out on the road, I should remind myself what it’s like to do that – I love it."
The Mull company spend a lot of time taking their shows out to the communities of the Highlands and islands and beyond, as you find out when you ask Alsadair what they have been up to this year.
"The most recent production before this was The Greatest Little Republic In The World we performed on Mull, written by a writer from Moray called Chris Lee.
"That may tour at some point in the future.
"Before that, we toured our production of Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore as part of whisky month. That went all over the Highlands and islands and Central Belt and we’re taking it to Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre for a week this month November after The Drawer Boy.
"We toured in Ferbruary/March a double bill of two new plays we’d commissioned, one in English and one in Gaelic – Rough Island by Nicola McCartney and Doras Duinte by Catriona Lexy Campbell.
"We do a fair amount of touring, but we’re properly funded and properly-equipped.
"So whether you are seeing a show at Eden Court or at Lochinver Village Hall, you get the same, good-quality show.
"And we will create a little theatre in your venue.
"It’s seating as you would have in a proper theatre.
"That’s one of the main problems you have in a village hall, you can’t see if you are more than two rows back.
"We deal with that either with the seating – though it means we need to take another vehicle.
"Or you have a set that consists of nothing – or the other way is, you make your set up higher.
"For this production, that is exactly what we have done. For most of it we are in the farmhouse kitchen which is elevated – sight lines are a big problem in village halls."
What – apart fromthat kind of problem-solving has Alsadair learned as artistic director during his time on Mull.
"We know what it’s like – because we are part of the community on Mull – to be part of a Highland community and what people’s expectations and scope might be and to try and work with that to expand that, but also to learn ourselves.
"Our remit really is to create new theatre, we are in the Highlands and clearly that is the place we want to identify with.
"We take work down to Glasgow and Edinburgh and London.
"We are a Highland company but we also want to be known for the quality of our work, not one that just happens to be in the Highlands, but known because we are doing something that is a good quality production wherever we go."
Alasdair added: "You have to work hard to get that effect.
"There are a great deal of folk in the Highlands and islands who are working as promoters.
"We couldn’t do this on our own – there is a huge amount of teamwork on a tour like this.
"At Eden Court or Dundee Rep you have the marketing team and they do a lot of the job for you.
"But when you are going to a village or a small town, you are relying on people’s voluntary help and getting up and doing it.
"They are doing that – usually – because they want to see theatre or other events coming to their village hall because otherwise they would have none.
"So they are incredibly important to the equation.
"For us, that’s our job. To make them happy and make them want to spread the news."
After the current tour ends next Saturday, Mull Theatre Company heads to Glasgow to reprise Whisky Galore.
But plans are already well underway for next year too.
Alasdair revealed: "One of the things we are going to be doing is a new play commissioned from the writer Peter Arnott who has done a bit of work for us before.
"Peter has written a new play which is based on – and timing is of the essence here – on the story of the Franklin Expedition to discover the North West Passage.
"A couple of years ago this was kind of an idea, it’s now become quite a cult idea as you may have noticed that in Northern Canada they have just discovered the not-quite-submerged wreck of Franklin’s ship the Erebus under 20 metres of Arctic ice!"
Alasdair laughed: "They are in the process of digging this up, so hopefully they could co-ordinate that to time with our tour next year ..."
He joked: "We’re making moves to the Canadian government to that effect, to time it for our press opening!
"Funnily enough, we were going to be doing this play last year and through a combination of circumstances, we had to put it off.
"Now I’m very glad we did because suddenly it’s terribly current!
"It’s going to be a very entertaining piece as well.
"It’s called Unspotted Snow – A Tale Of Victorian Ambition And Cannibalism!"
Mull Theatre Company’s production of Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy is at the Sunart Centre, Strontian on Saturday and at Eden Court on Monday.