New Edinburgh. It was meant to be a crowning achievement, cementing the Kingdom of Scotland as a power of trade and influence. It would instead prove to be a colossal failure. The Darien Scheme was an attempt in colonising the Gulf of Darien between Panama and Columbia in the 1690s. Comprised of two expeditions, the first is told here through the eyes of one (fictional) man – Murdo McFarlane. His desire to remain on the island, fascinated by its beauty despite the discomfort and constant threats of the natives, becomes the focal point for this production. For all which survives of the failed colony is his writings, which have allowed his stories to survive years later.
Darien – The Commonplace Book of Murdo MacFarlane, presented by Bell Baxter High School, is a loose biography surrounding the events of the new Caledonia settlement. As is tradition with high school productions, it’s also a musical. Richard Robbs’ script leans on the musical aspect; thankfully, the vocals of the cast are perhaps the production’s best asset. The content of the script is intriguing, with detailed visuals offering a clear sense of the world-building Scotland attempted, though we get bogged down in some of the lengthier political or historical features.
The heavy, almost lecturing aspect of Darien is lifted in Act Two, as we move away from the first settlers and instead have a welcome dose of stronger female characters arriving on the shores. The dialogue and the performances have a tighter feel, with humour taking a more central stance. Megan Callaghan as Macfarlane’s wife, along with fellow traveller, Daytona Brereton, have the standout vocals. Brereton’s earthy tones in particular are a voice to listen out for in the future. Another musical highlight that appears earlier in Act One is “Wigs”, where soloist Shane Franks proves himself to be exceptionally talented. This playful number allows a break for levity, lampooning bourgeoisie obsessions and Franks to impress the audience with his choreography and slapstick skill. In spite of Franks’ clear showmanship, the solo highlights the lyrical density of Robbs’ songs. It’s a wonder how Franks manages to get out a torrent of unnecessary words in stanzas.
Nevertheless, the tunes are certainly catchy, with Craig McNicol’s compositions adding pathos to the production. Daniel Staal’s lighting complements the atmosphere set by the score rather well, with a great deal of imagination going into the construction of some scenes. From the pure white mist rolling down the mountains to the crimson flash of the Spanish soldiers on their trail, Staal does a superb job in bringing Darien to life in vivid detail.
Bell Baxter High has produced an impressive piece in Darien; while many high school productions fall back on a pre-existing formula, they instead have gone for something truly original. With a series of solid vocals, some creative design work and a story which, despite its slow pacing, has an investing level of intrigue, mystery and heart, Darien is a piece to be proud of. It certainly has set the bar for future productions.