Thunderstruck: the play – on tour in Scotland, May-October 2022

0
308

The critically acclaimed and award-winning play about Gordon Duncan, Thunderstruck, by David Colvin is on tour in Scotland in 2022. The play is a must-see for pipers, and with the tour dates spread from May till October, as well as a stint at the Edinburgh Fringe from August 3-29, there are lots of opportunities to catch the show.

By CHRIS MacKENZIE
Piping Today #96, 2019.

Forgive the hyperbole, but it’s up there with when people heard Elvis, the Beatles or David Bowie for the first time, and it changed their view of what was possible with music, and so it was for many pipers (and indeed non-pipers) when they first heard Gordon Duncan play the Great Highland Bagpipe back in the eighties and nineties. Suddenly a whole new horizon appeared that was bright, vibrant and laden with possibilities. Eyes, or should that be ears, were opened, and the humble bagpipe became an instrument with a future and not just a past. 

That impact had a lasting effect on many, and some of them went on to build on Gordon’s legacy to get us to the place where we are now, where it’s the music that counts, and the old and the new sit very comfortably side by side. This is not in anyway to diminish the impact of a whole host of other players in this story such Fred Morrison, Martyn Bennett, Robert Mathieson, Dougie Pincock, Duncan McGillivray, Gary West, Finlay MacDonald and Chris Armstrong to name but a few, and plays, films or operas, may well come to be written about their impact on the piping world but Thunderstruck by David Colvin has at it’s heart the impact that first hearing the man, that Hamish Moore called ‘a National Treasure’, had on him and how he thought about music.  I had the pleasure of seeing the play as part of Celtic Connections in January 2019 and was then lucky enough to catch up with writer and performer David Colvin for pizza, beer and conversation on how the play came about.

The obvious place to start was how does an actor in one of the most successful plays of recent years  come to write and perform a tribute Gordon Duncan? “I was in a big play with the National Theatre of Scotland called Black Watch”, explained David. “For about two and a half years it was the biggest play in the world. The writer of that play was an amazing Fife writer called Gregory Burke. I think Gordon’s story had rattled round my head as an actor for a long time, because ‘Dave the actor’ thought, ‘there aren’t going to be many actors who can do it. I’m pretty much a shoo-in for whoever decides to write it, because I can do the job and I can just about do the thing as well’ – ‘Dave the actor’ just wanted someone to have a look at it. I spoke to Gregory Burke and he very patiently listened to me and then carried on with his Channel 4 stuff. I then worked with Communicado and the same thing happened when I spoke to them. Despite saying you should have a look at this guy Gordon, he did amazing things and he had all these conflicts in his life, really theatre is about conflict, and if you have a life with all these conflicts, not just personal but professional, that essentially creates great theatre, I couldn’t get anyone interested.

“I was at the Globe Theatre in London and in conversation with an English actor, and when he found out I was a piper he showed me a video clip entitled Thunderstruck which involved a bagpiper playing Thunderstruck, but he wasn’t really playing it. The backing was playing Thunderstruck and he was just adding random notes over the top but he had flames coming out of the top of his pipes. I’d had a few drinks and I was so frustrated that Gordon’s modern masterpiece was being butchered in such a way that I just schooled this poor guy for the best part of forty five minutes on the real Thunderstruck, and the real man and the real genius – and how I’ve always wanted someone to do the play. To his benefit John just said, ‘you should write it’. He didn’t think there was anyone else who should write it. That took me back a bit and I thought, ‘Yeah I should write it’. 

“Around about the same time, and it is related, my dad died, and I think I was in a place where I was fed up working for other people, I was fed up grafting for what theatre actors get – it’s not great and it just seems everybody above you, the writers, producers, directors are doing very well for themselves, and the actor does very well for three, four or five months of the year if you are lucky. 

“So I got a credit card with £5,000 on it, I planked myself in a coffee shop and thought I’m going to write this, and I racked up £4,992 worth of coffee, biscuits and sometimes a doughnut, and I just sat there and wrote a play. My girlfriend, bless her, must have been absolutely terrified as I just sat in a coffee shop all day and tried to immerse myself in a world that I have at times tried to forget.”

Those who have never put a play into production may well think that is all there is to it, drink a tanker full of coffee, eat a mountain of biscuits, and the play will emerge fully formed. Not so. That was just the beginning, as David explained: “We did a thing in London, in November 2016, called a scratch night. It basically means you put fifty or sixty people in a room and regurgitate what you’ve got so far, some of it was recited, some of it was as it is, some of it was very very different – there was bits of music and other things in there. This was the first time it had ever been performed, and a lot of the humour that’s in the play wasn’t as well constructed as it is now, so it wasn’t quite hitting the mark. A lot of the humour was there, but it just hadn’t been built right to hit the funny bone, but one scene turned up and got a huge laugh and a spontaneous round of applause. That was a lovely moment. The two bits of the play that haven’t moved since then are that moment (redacted to avoid being a spoiler) and what we call the Mozart moment – Lorient Mornings.”

Perhaps the most difficult decision to make when writing a play is what perspective to take and David’s perspective on the right approach morphed as the play went into the development process. This clearly played heavily on David’s mind as he looked to find the key to unlocking the essence of Gordon Duncan. That key presented itself in the form of one of piping’s seminal moments, one that has passed into the annals of piping lore. That moment was the 1993 Piping Times Knockout competition final between Gordon Duncan and Gordon Walker. Held in Studio One of Broadcasting House (the event was recorded and later broadcast by the BBC) in Glasgow. The final saw both players play brilliantly. Gordon Walker won, with perhaps a cannier selection of ‘light music’ with a smattering of ‘false fingered’ tunes at the end, while Gordon Duncan’s set was full on Gordon from start to finish. The music was greatly enjoyed by most there and indeed by most who heard the broadcasts later, but most certainly not by Seumas MacNeill who in his prize giving speech said, ‘If this is piping I’m going back to the fiddle’. He didn’t hold back, either, in his editorial in the July 1993 Piping Times, when he wrote, ‘What appears to be happening is that the fingering suitable for the Lowland bagpipes and the Irish uilleann pipe are being transferred to our classical instrument – with the worst possible results. The shakes and trills which form an essential part of the uilleann pipe-playing only reduce the Highland pipe to the level of the street musician in Sauchiehall Street, or, as Liam O’ Buachalla said, ‘the sound of the ould beezers round the Pillar in O’Connor street on a Saturday night’. 

This was seismic, here was the doyen of the piping world, founder and principal of the College of Piping and editor of the Piping Times (note to younger readers The National Piping Centre was merely plans on bits of paper back in 1993). Seumas was ‘piping’, and here he was slating a young player for making the music that he wanted to make on an instrument he loved.

Naturally this split the piping world into those that agreed with Seumas and those that thought Gordon’s music was fabulous and something they wanted to hear more of. Ultimately there were far more in the latter camp. The whole episode did, of course, inspire Gordon to call his first solo albumJust for Seumas with the title track having everything but the kitchen sink thrown in to make the point. 

Seumas MacNeill’s words became part of Gordon’s folklore – that phrase ‘If that’s piping I’m going back to the fiddle’.

This then was the key for David Colvin: “Seumas MacNeill’s words became part of Gordon’s folklore – that phrase ‘If that’s piping I’m going back to the fiddle’. That moment was an enormous moment for Gordon’s folklore, Gordon’s history – it’s the moment where people started looking at this ‘kitchen piping’ differently. The theatrical truth is, piping was one thing one minute and then because of this series of events that happened, started to become something completely different.

•David performing the play at Piping Live! 2018

“If you read an early version of the play, which no one will ever read, you’ll see a lovely monologue about someone who loves Gordon Duncan and his music, with no discernible conflict what so ever, and that’s not theatre – that’s a lecture. So I realised after that first version that if I’m theatre I needed Seumas MacNeill, as Mozart needed Salieri. I realised this play was so in need of a Salieri – I also realised I was the only person on the stage so I was going to have to embody this moment. So I just took how I felt about it and dialled it up really high.”

Having found the conflict the theatre needs, there was then another key decision to make around how to cast the play. Many of the episodes in Gordon’s life would make terrific scenes on the stage, why then did David decide to make it a one man (and a band) show? David explained: “The use of other actors was considered when we did the first script. The director we had then was quite keen to see what it would look like with other actors, so we had a few days workshop, where we got some really good improvise actors and we turned some of the storytelling into scenes. No matter how many days we went through it, I had the thought in my head that as soon as you have one more actor on the stage it’s then a play with characters, and you then have to write a backstory and motivation, and they then need to have this through composed line. But when only one actor is on the stage they are telling you what happened. 

“There were moments with the other actors that were really good, when we were improvising but I couldn’t get away from the fact that it now felt like a play. Good plays don’t feel like plays, they feel like you are part of something, but in my head I couldn’t get away from the fact that I was now listening to a play, and I didn’t want to listen to a play, I wanted to listen to one guy telling me what happened – it felt to me that the authenticity was diluted. The authenticity of what it felt like when you first saw Gordon play, and I felt if I turned that into a scene then it just became something else, it then became about my relationship to him rather than my relationship to you the audience. This changed everything and I need you to know this.”

This is all very well for those of us steeped in the piping world, but I asked David about the  challenge in presenting this in a way that’s accessible to people with no interest in the pipes.

“Indeed. I think there is enough of Gordon in the play that people with no interest in bagpipes will want to know more about him. I want this play to play in London and I want the audience to have as satisfying an experience as they did at The National Piping Centre. What’s wonderful is, especially when we did it in London, people really wanted to know…. one of the nights in London I forgot to say the line about Gordon’s end. I just did the Mozart line picked up my pipes and played Thunderstruck and the number of people that came up to me and asked what happened to him, people who had no interest in piping, no interest in music even, but they wanted to know what happened to him.”

One of the more surprising episodes, and one that seems to delight everyone, is the scene where Hector the Hero is performed using canntaireachd. It’s an odd choice as it’s not particularly a tune associated with Gordon. David explained: “The truth about its development within the play is hilarious, because when I did the heedrum hoodrum stuff I was worried about it. I thought it was a bit too Scottish, a bit too biscuit tinny, it felt like it was part of the play I didn’t want to write about – some Highland Scotsman with a ginger beard, heedrum hoodruming his way through the Highlands. I didn’t want that feeling, but it was there. I finished the play and my beautiful lady friend, who is an amazing actress in her own right, got to the end of the very first version which was much longer than it is now, and she said I love that thing you sang, I said ‘You mean the heedrum hoodrum thing’ she said, ‘yes do much more of that, much more of it’. So I put a bit more heedrum hoodrum in and she said ‘I want more’. 

“When we did Dunfermline, Tom Freeman who directed the play, and did an amazing job sprinkling little bits of fairy dust over it to highlight little corners of it so beautifully, we got to the end of the first read through and he was like  ‘I want more heedrum hoodrum stuff’,so then we get to the concert and I’m doing Pressed For Time and then we get to Thunderstruck and we are doing the old way they used to learn tunes and to me it’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve done in my life, but in itself tells a story about the way that language can’t really deal with what Gordon was doing. In a way the heedrum hoodrum stuff has it’s own little narrative through the play that’s so clever. It’s also a tribute to a man (Hector MacDonald) whose life also ended prematurely, albeit under a different circumstance, but with the same ultimate resolution. Hector the Hero was always in my head part of the play, I just didn’t know what context it would take. 

“It also pays a little bit of a tribute to a musical I saw in London that it had a bit of Indian Bhangra music in it, where the girl sang this unbelievable wedding song, which in their culture they mourn the loss of the child, she sang solo accompanied only by Shruti box. And the Hector the Hero sets plays a little tribute to the power of that little box and just a voice.”

•David performing the ‘heedrum hoodrum stuff’ with the shruti box

Despite the effort to get the play to the point where it feels like something that can be presented on stage and will engage audiences, the real challenge then becomes actually getting it on in a theatre. Despite the fact pipers tend to think along the lines of Bob Paisley: ‘It’s not life and death, it’s more important than that’, mere mortals often tend to have a love hate relationship with the Great Highland Bagpipe in that they love to hate it (queue bagpipe jokes). So how do you get a play about a piper on? 

“What was wonderful, was that when we did the Camden show in London, Roddy MacLeod was in London on his way back from The National Piping Centre Winter School in Brüggen. He was trapped there by the ‘Beast from the East’ snowstorm, and as a consequence met for a beer with John Angus Smith, who said you know where I’ve been – I went to see a play tonight about Gordon Duncan and you have to take it to Piping Live!.

…but this one piper saw it and then Roddy MacLeod got stuck in London and that little moment was the luckiest thing that ever happened to the play. Roddy phoned me the next week…

“We were a proper dead-end at that moment, as due to the weather very few people had come to see it, so I didn’t have any money left to pay anybody to do anything, even to pay the band for their performance – but this one piper saw it and then Roddy MacLeod got stuck in London and that little moment was the luckiest thing that ever happened to the play. Roddy phoned me the next week, and the play then took a big left turn from trying to find theatres to do the play in and being universally ignored – the second you say you are doing a play about bagpipes everybody switches off. They politely laugh at you and put the phone down – but Roddy booked us for Piping Live!.”

Fortunate without a doubt, but now a play that is designed for every-man/woman is now going to play in front of arguably the most knowledgeable piping crowd outside of the Northern Meeting, with most likely a good smattering of people who knew Gordon well. Tough gig to start with although perhaps the easiest given the fondness for Gordon in the audience. “Yes Piping Live! was wonderful for that – the love that I found at Piping Live! for Gordon – I found it quite emotional sometimes because he is now so looked after by piping folk, by all of us, that I just thought it was so beautiful. What was funny for me at the time was, before the show I think people were worried about me, and about the play,  I think we got chucked on late on a Sunday, the day after the Worlds because, ‘we don’t know what he is going to say, what he is going to do, what he is going to talk about’. There are certain aspects of Gordon’s life that people don’t want out there, they were worried about, even the Gordon Duncan Memorial Trust, and I’d emailed them almost every step of the way. I think early on they thought I was some mad guy in London and as it got later and Piping Live! came up they knew it was going to happen – even then I think they were a bit worried about it. As it turns out I don’t think they have anything to worry about, it’s very much a love story to a man we are all very passionate about.

‘Chris and Ian Duncan turned up ahead of the play at Piping Live! and dropped some material off for the Gordon Duncan Memorial Competition. When I heard they were in the building I ran downstairs to catch them and joined them at their table. At that moment I was as humble as I’ve ever been, as I realised I had written a play about someone’s brother and brother-in-law and that terrified me, more than any critical reviews we will get  in the press. 

“The Trust asked for one more ticket and I’d used all my comps so I asked Helen if they had any more – I was oblivious to the fact that it was for Ian. Helen sorted another ticket and Ian came, then we did the show and afterwards Ian said he loved it and honestly I could have burst into tears. I said ‘really?’ and he said ‘Yes – I loved it’, and that was enough for me. The analogy I make is if someone else wrote a play about my dad dying of cancer, and I went to see the play, it would be enormously difficult, and I would be terrified about what they would say about my dad, you want something that pays sufficient tribute – I suppose that was a balance for me. I didn’t want to write a Disney cartoon version of Gordon or the pipe band world, there had to be an honesty about his struggles and his relationship with alcohol. Scotland has a very funny relationship with talent, genius, it’s this really funny Scottish thing – the self deprecating thing I like to a certain extent, but only if it’s a self confident self deprecation and despite ‘building America’ with our inventions we have this confidence issue sometimes.”

Suffice to say the Piping Live! gig went down a storm with those that saw it recommending it to their friends. An invitation to do two nights at Celtic Connections followed with both nights selling out. Things are moving and the ‘big one’ is now lined up – a run at the Edinburgh festival, and I predict it will be a sensation there. This ‘success’ is of course no fluke, it is down to one man’s hard graft and great belief in what he is doing. David sees this determination as something instilled from his days in the Lochgelly Pipe Band (under PM Tom Brown).

“To take a boy from a proper mining village, Ballingry, in Fife, and to go to the World Championships, and for that announcement to be made – I went from a boy from a small mining village to a World Champion (the band won the Novice Juvenile World Championship followed by the Juvenile in the two years following) which was something that my brain couldn’t even comprehend at the time. Actually the world became smaller – and even better than that – it became somewhere I could conquer. 

“So when I started writing this play, people asked me what I wanted to do with it and I always say I want to conquer the world with it, and they go, ‘Ah, come Dave stop that’, but what’s the point of having goals if all you say is, ‘I’d quite like a wee Scottish tour’? 

“I would like a wee Scottish tour, don’t get me wrong, but my optimism about what this play can do is almost there because when I was 13 somebody said I was a World champion, and all of a sudden the world is somewhere I could conquer. There is a direct line between what happened when I was 13 and what I’m doing today – there must be. I didn’t recognise that at the time.’

What shines through like the Bell lighthouse on a clear dark night, is that David was profoundly affected by hearing Gordon play, and the play is testament to the privilege that was. “The one moment for me, and it’s a true moment in the play, was when I saw Gordon play in a pub somewhere in Fife and I was 13 or 14 – it was a magical experience. I was musical, I was musical enough to know that it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever heard – but I wasn’t good enough to do it and there was frustration in there for me. I wanted people to experience that conflict and frustration. I loved Gordon’s music from the first second I heard it I thought it was the most magical thing I had ever heard, but I did question how I had been taught, which is something I explore in the play.”

The play will run at the Edinburgh fringe in August this year and will, I’m sure, be an hit and there will doubtless be some American, Japanese, French and German tourists who will have a much deeper understanding of the Fife vernacular than they had before the show – let’s hope they are careful how they use it. 

One thing they will have a clear view on is the impact one young man had on the music of his country’s national instrument, and the love he inspired because of that. Thunderstruck will leave them thunder struck, and that is as it should be.