The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil review – a superb revival

Dundee Rep, and touring
John McGrath’s influential play about the history of the Highlands lives up to expectations

Try as you might not to let it happen, there are times when personal prejudice is in danger of skewing critical objectivity. For me, this is one of those times. I clearly remember watching John McGrath’s play in its televised version one summer’s evening after school. Created with the company 7:84 (Scotland), The Cheviot was, as the subtitle informatively tells us, “a ceilidh play with scenes, songs and music of Highland history from the clearances to the oil strike”. In 1973, it toured throughout the Highlands (and beyond), playing mostly in arts centres, community halls and the like. The following year, McGrath adapted it for the BBC’s Play for Today slot (happy days!).

What I saw that night shaped for ever my ideas about what theatre could be: lively, entertaining; politically engaged, popular, speaking to people, not at them, setting up a stage wherever an audience might gather; funny, moving, informative... For decades, I have longed to see The Cheviot performed. You can see why I was worried about objectivity.

Happily, I am not alone. The play shaped a generation. Critical response to director Joe Douglas’s production - first mounted in Dundee last year and now revived for a tour - is overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The Cheviot lives up to expectation. Now, I have three regrets. A small one: this tour is not more extensive. A huge one: the subject matter is as fresh today as it was then - the economic interests of the few still blight (I speak mildly) the lives of the many (new material neatly throws Donald Trump, for instance, into the original script). One for another moment: 7:84’s challenge to practitioners to address the political structure of theatre as well as of society is so hard to meet.

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil tours until 22 October


Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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