Neil Munro’s comedic tales of the master mariner Para Handy and his sidekicks, Dan Macphail, Dougie and Sunny Jim have been celebrated in newspapers, books and on television for over a century. So, why was the first scene of John Betts’ Para Handy: A Voyage Round the Stories of Neil Munro set in Inverbeg Recycling Centre?
With the house lights still blazing a collection of hard hatted workmen and women gradually appear on stage. Eventually, one announces he’s found a book of Munro’s tales. While this is an unusual and refreshing idea it’s a bit of a slow, contrived way of getting into the piece. However, very cleverly, Annette Gillies’ versatile set transforms into the Clyde puffer the SS Vital Spark and the voyage begins.
Writer and director John Bett conjures up well the essence of the age with the help of two screens either side of the set showing black and white footage of a bygone life on the Clyde. The various main characters are given life by a great cast. Jimmy Chisholm shines as Para Handy and plays him just right; funny and loveable with just the right amount of guile and roguishness. Furthermore, Peter Kelly is ideal as the pessimistic and slightly camp Macphail. George Drennan, too, captures well the superstitious nature of Dougie and Sandy Nelson plays the slightly naïve, cheeky chappie Sunny Jim to a tee.
Along with Jimmy Yuill, Annie Grace and Helen MacKay, the cast recreate some of Para Handy’s great adventures in a sketch show format, separated by various musical interludes. With the band given prominence at the side of the stage it’s clear music will play a part in the show. However, instead of providing a musical backdrop to the piece, the band, led by composer and musical director Robert Pettigrew, were a bit invasive, making the piece feel more like an operetta than a play.
Although the cast were strong and entertaining, I could not help but think that less music, more comic dialogue and a stronger script could have made Para Handy: A Voyage Round the Stories of Neil Munro a more memorable show.