Simon Macallum’s Balgay Hill sets out to celebrate the life and work of the late Dundonian pop star Billy Mackenzie, but the Associates frontman actually remains pretty elusive throughout, and what emerges in the end is a well-intentioned, if somewhat hesitant, exploration of the changing fortunes of Dundee, as seen through the eyes of a quartet of disparate characters.
Would-be pop star Stephen (Robin Laing) forms a band called the Nude Spoons and, with Mackenzie his inspiration, dreams of escape. His cannier younger brother Michael (Vincent Friell) dismisses the star as a phoney, much to the consternation of his American girlfriend, Kennedy (Louise Ludgate), but seeks solace in his music many years later. Meanwhile, a running commentary on Mackenzie’s life and career is provided by Sinead, (Helen McAlpine), a troubled teen who finds release in Billy’s music.
While alluding to the darker aspects of the city’s history, and Mackenzie’s own battles with depression and addiction, Macallum’s play attempts to offer a more balanced view of Dundee from the conventional 1980s image of a grey, post-industrial, unemployment-ridden dump. References to local landmarks, from the cemetery on the ‘Hilly’ where Mackenzie is buried to the Washington Café in the Nethergate, are enthusiastically lapped up by the local audience. Yet, the characters’ overall trajectory (from miserable to even more miserable) rather undermines Mackenzie’s status as the supposedly redemptive figure in their lives.
Also problematic is the framing conceit of telling Billy’s story in lecture form through the film Sinead is making, which rather undermines the dramatic thrust of the piece, and the technology littering the stage eventually proves cumbersome. Still, strong performances from the cast (particularly Laing) draw you into the individual stories here, while Mackenzie’s charisma and uncompromising talent come through loud and clear in the all-too-brief clips from his too-brief career.
Dundee Rep, until Sat 27 Jun