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The Electrifying Mr Johnston

The Studio, Edinburgh
Four stars

History is a fickle beast, and the states-people who stride through it can be lionised one minute, reviled the next. Such complexities and contradictions are thrown into the air for serious contemplation in Robert Dawson Scott’s fascinating dramatic study of one-time Scottish socialist firebrand Tom Johnston, who drove the creation of hydro-electric power stations in the Highlands. While it is taken for granted that this changed the social landscape for the better, some of the collateral damage left in its wake begs to differ.

Dawson Scott calls Johnston to account through the figure of Sandy MacKenzie, an idealistic young journalist, who as a young student lends his political idol a copy of Johnston’s own book, Our Scots Noble Families, but never receives the return he once expected.

Such is the way of real-politick in Dawson Scott’s script for Alasdair McCrone’s Mull Theatre production, currently on a suitably energised. cross-country tour. With Stephen Clyde taking on the role of Johnston with understated gravitas, Dawson Scott is aiming higher than hagiography. The play’s store is set out from an early conversation about Winston Churchill between MacKenzie and a pukka Westminster apparatchik played by Beth Marshall. This duly points up the ambiguities of Johnston’s actions that follow, exposing the thin line between political heroism and villainy.

Dawson Scott doesn’t stop there. As MacKenzie - played by Alan MacKenzie - gets a gig on the Daily Herald, no less, he calls out his former hero on the construction companies building the new stations and their track record of fatalities on site, the use of cheap migrant labour and a failure to recognise trade unions.

But this is too subtle for polemic, and is cannily alert to the nuances of compromise required to serve a seemingly higher cause which may well end up as folly. Set against Alan Melvin’s plugged-in backdrop and pulsed by Martin Low’s piano-based score, Dawson Scott’s play offers up a knowing glimpse at how power works, even when it doesn’t.

The Herald, February 18th 2019



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