The Stornoway Way
- Gareth K Vile
- 10 October 2019
Novel becomes a three-handed reflection on addiction in the isles
Adapted from his own novel by Kevin MacNeil is a morally responsible play with songs that examines the particular shape of alcohol abuse on the Isle of Lewis. The cast of three portray a variety of islanders, from an alcohol counsellor to the local reverend, suggesting a broad sweep but ultimately focussing on the tragedy of one young man who finds that musical talent is not enough to overcome his demons.
Despite widening the story to include other voices, the plot remains a study of the protagonist's downward spiral. Having shown promise as a musician, Roman Stornoway heads to Edinburgh, supported by best friend Eilidh, but his drinking leads him into an exploitative relationship with a PhD student that reveals his misogyny and lack of empathy.
MacNeil's script is uneven: the use of meta-theatrical touches is clumsy, and only in the arguments between Roman and his lover does a dynamic tension emerge: many of the other conversations are reduced to either contextualising episodes (a scene in the pub, Roman's routine on the island) or disconnected counterpoints to Roman's behaviour, as in Eilidh's redemptive engagement with meditation.
The poetic turns of phrase and evocation of the island's beauty lend Roman's story a romanticism he does not deserve – he is a recognisable type, the alcoholic who charms to hide a vicious nihilism and self-obsession. The second half is more critical of the protagonist, but the attempts to explain his behaviour through both clinical sympathy and the pressures of the Free Church's theocratic control of the island lack depth. And the gender-neutral casting undermines the representation of a toxic masculinity that clearly underlies Roman's indulgence of his weaknesses.
The worthiness of the subject aside, the production struggles to find a rhythm and lacks impact: the musical interludes are affecting but rarely provide incisive commentary, and projections at the back of the stage obscure the translations of the gaelic, while the delivery of the ensemble is not always clear. Ideas – such as a cheeky use of gaelic to seduce, or the pressures of visiting the big city – appear and disappear, suggestive rather than profound, while the rambling structure resolves into a relatively unearnt tragic finale.
Relying heavily on the seriousness of alcohol abuse as its major theme, The Stornoway Way becomes a self-consciously worthy study of a life that, ultimately, is destroyed through the protagonist's failure to rise above their own limitations: never settling on tragedy or social observation, it lacks a consistent dramaturgy to press home its important moral message or explore the characters of this isolated island.
The Studio at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Fri 11 & Sat 12 Oct, and touring.