REVIEW – Conversation with Cairney, Royal Lyceum Theatre


The Royal Lyceum Edinburgh – 17th November 2010

By Danielle Farrow

“An actor’s life for me!” With this apt ditty, John Cairney took to the stage: 63 years an actor, voice cracking slightly, twinkle in the eye – and the feet – and charm aplenty. By the end he was confiding that, at the start of the show he feels alone up there, hence such awkwardness as stumbles. As the show progresses, bit by bit the audience join him and by the end we are all in it together, a true ‘congregation’ – a gathering together to become one. The audience of this show, many of whom remembered his earlier performances and references, certainly took part in that gathering.
Those involved in joining him in reminiscences, songs and laughter were mostly above a certain age. A fellow reviewer said on spotting me, “Oh good, I thought I was the only one here under 30.” Passing over the flattery of that, the thought that hit was “Isn’t that a pity! Here is a man who has been able to make a living doing what he very obviously loves – living through his passion – and younger people are not here to witness, enjoy and learn.”
Well lit by someone both in tune with the show’s moods and able to respond live when he answered questions, Cairney used changing voices, humorous audience interaction and glorious anecdotes to frame his portrayals of poets passionate Burns, zealous McGonagall and lyrical Stevenson, portraits drawn with both measured strokes and deeply moving colours. He drew his audience to him with charm, aplomb and, as he says of the poets he admires, with ‘heart’. When asked afterwards if there is anything he is enthusiastic about in Scottish Theatre today, he spoke of the freedom nowadays to be oneself in acting, the burning energy of contemporary theatre, and the brilliance of shows like Black Watch which exemplify such energy and freedom. John Cairney himself exemplifies the passion, technique and application of someone who has been able to support himself in theatre for a full life and who still retains his fire and ability to perform.
This is a show of nostalgia in its content, but its delivery connects to something every bit as relevant today as in times past. Sometimes technique was more visible than expected nowadays, and sometimes words went, but in being open about this with his audience and riding the vulnerability of such a show – completely dependent on one man indeed getting his audience up there with him – John Cairney touches on what good performers are and why people want to watch them: it is for the gift of themselves.

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