The Cone Gatherers
Uneven adaptation of classic Scottish novel is distinguished by strong performances
Robin Jenkins' most famous novel has long enjoyed a prominent place on the Scottish curriculum as a set text. Yet, for all its familiarity, the tale's lyrical depiction of class conflict, obsession and petty fascism, set in a Scotland thrown into flux by the Second World War, still resonates powerfully. Peter Arnott's stage adaptation zeroes in on the irrational hatred felt by Highland head gamekeeper Duror for the innocent cone-gatherer, Calum (Ben Winger), with much of the power in Kenny Ireland's production being derived from Tom McGovern's quietly sinister turn in the lead role. Duror's bullying of the hunchback Calum and avowed dislike of anything 'misshapen' (allying him with the atrocities being carried out in central Europe at the time) are made all the more disturbing for the lack of histrionics in McGovern's performance.
Theatrically, Ireland's production feels at times rather disjointed, covering up for large chunks of exposition in Arnott's text with incongruous sung passages and a couple of dance sequences that verge on the unintentionally funny. One element that does work well, however, is Hayden Griffin's impressionistic forest set, which evokes the frightening density of the Runcie-Campbell estate, and provides the backdrop to projections by Greig Dempste that remind us of the bloody war and social upheaval going on beyond the estate's walls. The performances, too, lend poignancy to the story, notably Winger and John Kielty, touching as the devoted brothers, Calum and Neil, and Jennifer Black as Lady Runcie-Campbell, whose inability to prioritise basic humanity over the strict class structure renders her powerless to prevent the play's tragic climax.
The Cone Gatherers is touring Scotland until Sat 10 Nov.