Recalling memories of his own childhood in the far north of Scotland, Neil M Gunn’s 1941 novel comes to the stage with a vigor that belies its age and subject matter.
The play tells of a Highland way of life altered by the Clearances, life on the land replaced by life on the open seas, where fishing for herring, the “silver darlings” of the title, puts at risk the lives of men every day.
Those left behind, women like Catrine (Meg Fraser) abandoned by her husband Tormad who has been press ganged into working aboard a boat, are left to fend for themselves with little money to their name.
As Catrine makes new friends with boat owner Roddie (Tom McGovern) and Kirsty (Anne Louise Ross), her son Finn (Finn Den Hertog) grows into a young man with definite shades of his father, something that threatens to tear them apart.
Though the death, disease and deprivation at the heart of the 600-page novel are present in this new adaptation, the necessary trims made to the adaptation by Peter Arnott ensures that the story rattles along at a decent pace in the first half.
The decision to let members of the cast become narrators of Catrine and Finn’s story is an inspired one – whether they’re moving around the stage or watching proceedings from the background, there’s a constant presence from the Greek chorus-like onlookers.
Hayden Griffin’s atmospheric set design adds depth to the piece, projected images to the rear helping to set the scene, whether it’s on land or at sea. A clever use of rearranged props and furniture to represent boats, doorways or a church pulpit helps cement the deprived nature of the characters, while the drama of a life on the ocean is effectively shown with the use of a smoke machine and impressive direction.
Proving herself a strong lead, Meg Fraser may not be seen to age as Catrine but her ability to portray an increasingly world-weary attitude does much to show how a harsh life has affected her.
While Finn Den Hertog has a pivotal role as Finn, the need to excise much of his dialogue and many of his storytelling traits from the novel results in him becoming a weaker character than he perhaps should be. It’s hard to understand why Una (Sally Reid) refers to him as “the smartest boy in the village” when we barely see this trait, though Hertog brings much to the role.
Elsewhere, Scottish theatre stalwarts Jimmy Chisholm and Michael Mackenzie effortlessly portray a number of parts, donning new personas at the drop of a hat and bringing new life to each.
Bringing both energy and emotion to a much loved story, this production entertains the audience as much as it involves them in the drama, right up until its unpredictable ending.
Until 10 October at the Kings Theatre, then on tour until 31 October.