- Gareth K Vile
- 21 January 2020
From the comic page to the stage
Sellador and Dundee Rep's adaptation of the iconic Scottish comic character makes a bold move in directly addressing Oor Wullie's fundamentally conservative and traditional world of cheeky scamps and Scottish identity. With a new character, Wahid, at the centre of the action, and explicit comments on everyday racism in the first scenes and songs, this musical comedy promises to grapple with very contemporary issues of belonging and prejudice. It quickly provides more familiar elements – a series of songs that owe more than a little to the distinctive strum and march of The Proclaimers' signature hit '500 Miles', plenty of Scots dialect and an adventure that sees Wullie and his pals celebrate friendship and mischief to rescue his legendary bucket from the antagonist bully, Basher – but the desire to respect Wullie's cartoon legacy is tempered by an attempt to represent a modern Scotland.
Set between two dimensions – Wahid's contemporary Scotland and Wullie's comic book town of Auchenshoogle – the cast cope well with the formalised gestures that evoke the comic book medium, but are less effective when belting out the musical numbers: the combination of dialect and loud music suffocates the words, and the choreography, especially in a number that shows vague Bollywood influences, is functional rather than exciting. The plot is clear and simple enough – although the show is suitable for young children, it relies on an awareness of The Sunday Post's stories and the relationship between Wullie and the local policeman PC Murdoch –, attempts to rehabilitate Basher (bullies simply don't get enough attention) and avoids Wullie's more murderous qualities (an early story, reprinted in the programme, featured Wullie causing a major road accident by slamming a walking stick in the tramlines).
With George Drennan taking the role of Wullie's creator Dudley D. Watkins and narrative, the action skips along at a fair pace, sometimes interrupted by comic set-pieces such as Wullie's pals on a bike or a confrontation at a steel factory, finally returning to Wahid's world and his new awareness of the Scottish culture that had previously excluded him. That Wahid's new-found confidence is expressed through his ability to hurl abuse in dialect might not be the most sensible solution to regional racism.
While the score is rather perfunctory, the comedy is always lively and the good-hearted spirit of Wullie's gang is lent a dynamic, contemporary relevance: the bravery of confronting the implicit values in DC Thompson might not quite come off, and it retains enough nostalgia to appeal to fans of the scurrilous Scottish scamp.
Reviewed at Theatre Royal, Glasgow. Now touring.