First impressions of SCOTS, a musical by award-winning duo, Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie don’t exactly inspire much confidence. The poster image of a Scottish flag whose saltire is made of toilet rolls does not suggest that sparkling, sophisticated entertainment awaits.
Nor does the giant toilet dominating the set in Ghillie Dhu, the beautiful vaulted Georgian hall in Edinburgh’s West End. The show opening with someone peeing in the toilet seems to confirm the worst fears that an afternoon of lavatory humour awaits…
Except what does unfold is an unexpected and unconventional delight. Out of the toilet bowl, like Trainspotting in reverse, emerges an unlikely figure. Dressed in shimmering white, with a Scottish-flag cape, shorts adorned with a saltire and a baseball cap embellished with a poo emoji, he introduces himself as The Toilet. The heroic personification of privies through the ages – from moss and dirt, wood and clay, porcelaine to the current ceramic number – The Toilet tells us he has witnessed some remarkable people through the ages – as well as “some terrible arseholes”. Played with a Jim Carrey-esque impishness by Tyler Collins, The Toilet becomes our guide and narrator for a whistle-stop journey through over a thousand years of Scottish history. If this seems a somewhat random witness of Scottish history, Scots soon reminds us in song that the man who filed the first flush-toilet patent, inventor Alexander Cumming, was a Scot.
If the 840 AD uniting of the four kingdoms (the Picts, the Irish-speaking Dál Riata, the Welsh-speaking Strathclyde, and north Umbria) into Alba seems a little dry for a musical, you haven’t reckoned on Richard Conlon‘s fine comic turn as the Spamalot-like Kenneth MacAlpin (Scotland’s first king). Performing What Makes A Country?, this rousing anthem has a great melody and an irresistible rum-te-tum military rhythm that Boublil and Schonberg would give their eye teeth for.
With 600 years and ten rulers despatched in the Quick History Lesson rap, SCOTS turns to the bewildering inventiveness of such a relatively small nation. Sharing a similar catchy pop DNA with Six The Musical or Hamilton (the musical, not the town), Give Me A Reason offers a lengthy roll call of what Scottish scientists and inventors have given to the world – all to a funky beat. Fingerprints, X-rays, golf , the telephone, the vacuum flask, insulin, toasters and caramel wafers are just some of the examples of Scottish ingenuity listed.
Wisely, the writers move from the traditional perspective of men, battles and history to aspects of Scotland’s story that are too easily sidelined. Mathematician, scientist, polymath and astronomer Mary Somerville cuts through the “misogyny minefield” with a song that rails at how men were shown the world while “I was shown my place”. Played with intoxicating passion by Lauren Ellis-Steele, she delivers an uplifting feminist showstopper I Don’t Need Your Approval that will resonate strongly with Scottish woman of the past and present. Ellis-Steele’s powerhouse vocals, coupled with harmonic perfection from the female members of the cast (Star Penders, Yana Harris and Mackenzie Wilcox), send the emotions soaring and will give you goosebumps that can be seen from Neptune (which coincidentally, was discovered thanks to Mary Somerville’s mathematical calculations).
What impresses about SCOTS as a musical, writers Gilmore and Mackenzie (collectively known as Noisemaker) are as equally adept at penning an intimate ballad as an auditorium-filling belter. Exploring the politics of LGBTQ rights from a highly-personal perspective, Daniel and Oscar is an understated and heartbreaking look back at recent history when, in 1976, boys like 17-year-old Daniel and Oscar had to hide their sexuality. Shamefully, with same-sex relationships still illegal then, the song tells how the two were discovered together hiding in a toilet cubicle and were jailed. Fast forwarding through time, past legalisation in 1981, where Oscar becomes a high school teacher and still cannot be open about being gay and onwards, to 2014 when Scotland was slower to legalise same-sex marriage to finally leading the way by offering free preventative HIV medication on the NHS, the song is an unflinching polemic that insists in 2023 “we should be who we are meant to be“. Sebastian Lim-Seet and Grant McIntyre capture the innocence and vulnerability of the song’s title characters with such subtlety of performance and purity of vocals, the audience dissolves into a sea of warm eyes by the end.
SCOTS is such a bold, unique look at Scottish history and what Scotland is today. Its ability to mix throwaway humour and profound insights together, for silly sketches to sit side-by-side with an incredibly evocative soundtrack, is probably the perfect metaphor for the diversity and scope of modern Scotland. With a cast brimming with talent and a musical score that could effortlessly rival many a show in London’s West End, SCOTS is a fearless, patriotic and progressive delight.
An unflinching and unmissible musical journey – ★★★★★ 5-stars