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Orphans: a new Scottish musical at Glasgow's SEC Armadillo – review

The stage adaptation of Peter Mullan's cult classic film will also tour to Edinburgh and Inverness

Orphans: a new Scottish musical
© Mihaela Bodlovic

The history of adapting films into stage shows isn't entirely a smooth one. The last time I saw it done in Scotland was for Local Hero in 2019, a show that exemplified the problems of transferring a story from one form into another, such as the unbreakable straitjacket of the narrative or the sometimes jarring introduction of songs.

This adaptation of Orphans doesn't completely solve all of those problems, but it definitely deserves to be a hit. I haven't seen the Peter Mullan film on which this musical is based, but that scarcely matters. The key question is whether it stands up as a successful work of art on its own terms, and it definitely does.

The story mostly takes place over a single night in Glasgow, the night that Rose Flynn's four children mourn her passing before her funeral the following morning. Thomas, John, Michael and Sheila are each taking it very differently, and all have their own demons to work through. In addition, Michael is stabbed in a pub brawl at the start of the evening, John is bent on a vendetta against the perpetrator, and all the while a terrible storm is closing in on Glasgow, redolent with metaphors as well as severe weather.

It's a clever set-up because it imposes on the story a tight sense of time running out: the funeral will take place in the morning, by which time all the loose ends need to be tied up, and Douglas Maxwell's script handles the drama really effectively. A jet-black strand of comedy runs through the dialogue, as does a very specifically Glaswegian sense of humour that never defers to authority and always tries to stick it to the man.

In one sense the script is very episodic in the way it transfers between the stories of the four siblings – a problem I suspect it inherits from its cinematic origins – but each scene is populated by some brilliantly memorable cameos that carry it vividly. I particularly enjoyed the Paper Girls who take Sheila to "the shows" (otherwise called the funfair, if you're south of Hadrian's Wall), but the Glasgow criminal underworld is also lit up with flashes of brilliance, and there's a brilliantly surreal scene set in a pub basement.

The performances live through Cora Bisset's clean direction, superbly aided by Emily James' designs which unfold and rotate like a pop-up book. The performances themselves are well-sung and well-contrasted, led by Robert Florence's super-sincere eldest brother Thomas, and Reuben Joseph, who plays stab victim Michael.

However, it's very much a company effort, and the songs are terrific, too. Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly write memorable tunes with witty lyrics, which are energetic and rhythmically driven, and owe their influences as much to pop as to Scottish folk. There's also variety, from the poignancy of Thomas' "Safe with you" to the song of the sadistic landlords at closing time, and the maddeningly catchy "Every c*nt should love every c*nt."

The only problem is the length. It could do with losing at least half an hour because no show in this day and age should bring down its curtain at 10:35pm. Perhaps connected to this, the last act denouement feels confused. Trimming some narrative fat would add clarity.

However, that doesn't alter the fact that this is a real success from the National Theatre of Scotland and its team. North of the border, at any rate, this is the best new musical I've seen in years.