“There’s 2000 years o’ knowledge in our bones, connecting us to a’ the countries o’ the world”
With exquisite timing, this tale of 60s life on Leith docks arrives to remind us how the port has always prospered from its international relations, particularly with our beret-wearing brethren from across the North Sea.
Laure Paterson’s story homes in on one particular docker’s family – widower father, Davie; school-leaving Sonny; and Aunt May – and their French friend Pierre who rocks up every time a ship brings him to port to sell his onions. (If you ever thought the bike, string-of-onions, beret was a French cliché, apparently not. These “ingan johnnies” existed and are reproduced here in all their slightly ‘Allo ‘Allo-y glory.)
The forty-five minute play has all the hallmarks of Citadel Arts productions – everyman (and woman) characters, family tensions, lively Scots dialogue, a lightly educational air, and above all, an easy-going watchability which gives a real flavour of the lives and times being portrayed. As always, it’s very faithful to the era too – the set makes full use of period artefacts, we’re treated to a toe-tapping 60s soundtrack (Telstar by the Tornados being a personal favourite), and contemporary cultural references dropped into the dialogue (as when Davie’s stratospheric temper gets compared to Sputnik).
Mark Kydd has played many a role for Citadel and is in his element here in the father role. Helen Cuinn as Aunt May plays a strong matriarchal role that hints at repressed passions, much like Helen McRory’s Polly in Peaky Blinders. Here the passions are a somewhat thwarted love of the theatre and the jolly Frenchman Pierre, played with sparkiness by Gregor Davidson, who seems not the slightest put off by May’s buttoned-down romantic reluctance.
Sonny, vibrantly performed by Derek McGhie, is the key role. On the cusp of manhood, he has to choose between his own ambitions to become an engineer and the dock life his father assured him is in his bones. In the end it takes a near disaster to sway his decision.
But it’s a decision we’ll never quite know how it turns out. The rather abrupt end to the play leaves a few threads hanging. One feels it could usefully be extended to an hour (it was originally part of a double-bill) with more time exploring how Sonny really feels about his career choice, and his burgeoning relationship with the (unseen) “belle mademoiselle”, Pierre’s niece.
But even as its current length, it’s a lovely snapshot of life in the port. Citadel Arts and the Living Memory Association (first floor of Ocean Terminal – well worth a visit!) continue to mine the history of the district for little gems which remind us of the power, and power for good, of shared cultural memory. Something we need reminded of now, more than ever.