The year, 1888. The place, Stornoway. But far from the sharp coastline characteristic of the Outer Hebrides, the action is set in a forgotten town in Quebec during the worst snow blizzard of the year.
The set up is simple: five people who shouldn’t be near each other end up trapped in a saloon where a mix of whisky and ether seems to be the soup of the day.
Stornoway Quebec is the latest (and probably the only one of its kind) play by prolific writer Calum L. MacLeod for Scotland’s Gaelic language drama company Theatre Gu Leòr. It follows the story of Màiri MacNeill – Elspeth Turner-, a Barra-born but Texas-raised bounty hunter who after a betrayal, is on the hunt of Canada’s most wanted outlaw, Donald Morrison.
A series of leads brings Mairi to a remote inn run by Mrs and Mr Bouchard – played by MJ Deans and Sam James Smith – and soon enough, she discovers that the couple are planning to hide Donald in the premises as a party of detectives are on their way to capture him.
To this recipe for disaster, MacLeod adds the character of Malcolm MacAuley, played by Daibhidh Walker, a ruthless business self-proclaimed Major of the town.
The plot has its roots in the real character of Donald Morrison, a Canadian outlaw, convicted of manslaughter, who became a folk hero. Although in this occasion, the play switches our attention from Donald and has its focus on the story’s heroine, Màiri MacNeill. Through this performance, Elspeth Turner elevates this theatre piece to a complete superior category. Her presence on stage is magnetic, reminiscent of a Gaelic Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar or Barbara Stanwyck in The Furies. With her performance, Turner has achieved to create a myth, an icon that the Scottish Islands can claim as theirs.
From what it can be seen at first as a predictable one-space Western drama, Stornoway, Quebec is much complex than that. The story deepens in the two female characters – Màiri & Mrs Bouchard- as they bond over their shared feeling of longingness for a Scotland they either don’t know or can’t remember anymore. These characters are tortured by ghosts of the past and a sense of not belonging in a foreign land they’re forced to call home. This is a story of acceptance and finding one’s path rather than of revenge and hatred, which feels refreshing as themes in a genre that many times falls to be hyperviolent and shallow.
Stornoway Quebec is a delightful dramatic exercise that highlights and celebrates the forgotten Gaelic communities in Canada. A fiddle blends with the sound of the harmonica as our protagonist sips whisky ready to fire her.45 colt. She remembers the moves. The ceilidh has begun.
Reviewer: Nazaret Ranea
Reviewed: 8th April 2023
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★