Bessie Townsley grew up in a community of travellers in 1930s Perthshire. She recorded her experiences in her memoir, The Yellow On The Broom. The book was adapted for the stage in 1989 by playwright Anne Downie who was lucky enough to meet the author and drew on her stories, the book and recordings of folk songs to bring the world of travelling people vividly to life, decades later.
The play shows us Bessie’s early life on the road with her mum, dad and siblings, living in impromptu groups, finding work where they can, striking out alone and – grudgingly from her mum’s point of view – spending winters indoors to ensure Bessie gets the then obligatory 100 days of school. Downie’s script nicely juxtaposes the many small kindnesses of strangers with the Townsleys’ continual struggle for stability.
If the families’ experiences are typical, life for Scotland’s Travellers hasn’t improved a whole lot in the intervening years. The play documents the bullying, the judgements, the lazy assumptions heaped onto this community by the people they live alongside, coupled with the gradual exclusion of travellers from local land as the years go by.
With eerie contemporary resonance, the travellers are accused of living off the local community without giving anything back. As immigration, racism and the refugee crisis continue to be political hot potatoes, it’s easy to see why Dundee Rep’s Artistic Director, Andrew Panton, felt the time was right to stage this play. And it’s great to see the theatre using this production as a platform for a series of events through September that celebrate the history and future of Scotland’s Travellers and their culture.
This is a boisterous, joyful production, packed with music, traditional songs and a continual restless movement that evokes the travellers’ claustrophobia if made to stay in the same place for too long. Gary Mackay is defiant as Sandy, Bessie’s dad, fiercely proud of his family, fiercely committed to avoiding alcohol following a fight he was too drunk to remember. Mackay conveys a resolute strength in his commitment to do what’s right, despite (most) provocation. Beth Marshall is a warm-hearted Maggie, Bessie’s mum, but you wouldn’t want to mess with her. Chiara Sparkes, as Young Bessie is a complete delight, a beautifully convincing petulant child growing into a righteous warrior who uses her dad’s moral compass to navigate the adult world.
Panton’s direction is expert, revelling in the joy of life outdoors, of nature, of freedom but using all the theatrical tricks at his disposal to show that this 1930s story is just as much a story for today. But this production is a team effort. Kenneth MacLeod’s set is a proper box of tricks, with multiple heights, a wistfully evocative backcloth that nicely narrows to convey claustrophia, a fire pit that the cast brilliantly, religiously, douse before it’s packed away again, even a babbling brook that was only missing trout. Sinead McKenna’s lighting is artfully unobtrusive. And composer John Kielty has assembled a foot-tapping collection along with the much loved “Yellow on the broom”. “I’ll be singin’ that aw’ evenin”, one audience member confided to her friend as we left the theatre.
This is a brilliant show to launch Dundee Rep’s new season. It’s a colourful, wistful story about a woman with spirit at a time when women were more commonly encouraged not to have opinions. It celebrates the beauty, the history and the culture of the local community. It’s a love letter to a people too often excluded. And it’s a timely reminder that the world would be a better place if we judged less and empathised more.