Leith treasures, the Citadel Arts Group, are currently summoning the dead to North Leith Parish Church, with The Ghosts of North Leith. The play, which received a warm welcome at a reading at this year’s Leith Festival, has since been revised and developed. The result is a thoroughly entertaining and enlightening ~90 minutes (plus an interval).
The creation of seven members of the group’s Playwright’s Workshop, The Ghosts of North Leith resurrects seven occupants of the old cemetery on Coburg Street to tell their stories. Jim Brown, Carolyn Lincoln, John Lamb, Brian Lincoln, Hilary Spiers, Elaine Campbell, and Rhona McAdam have created relatable characters, simply and effectively woven together via the play’s host-cum-narrator Robert Nicoll (Fraser Allan Hogg).
From a spectrally impressive opening to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the play first introduces the early 19th-century newspaper man, radical, and poet Nicoll. A newcomer to the neighbourhood, he meets the other spectres who call the cemetery ‘home.’ Their stories are told in reverse order, embodied by the other four actors in the cast.
Grant MacIver, Deborah Whyte, Chelsea Grace, and Mark Kydd do sterling work, each taking on a clutch of characters, either lead or supporting as each individual tale requires. Individually entertaining, theQR’s personal picks of the anthology are the comical history of the Rev Dr David Johnston, and the uproarious autobiography of Jacobite heroine Lady Anne Mackintosh. MacIver and Kydd make a wonderful contrast of august social reformer and ribald covenanter in the former, whilst Grace makes a superb ‘Girls-own’ adventurer in the latter.
Director Liz Hare exhibits a sure hand at the helm of The Ghosts of North Leith, imbuing the play with plenty of momentum, but no rush. Each story is given space to breathe, the constant preparations of off-stage cast members to take on the next tale leaving no uncomfortable gaps in between. With experienced polymath wizard Roddy Simpson in charge of light and sound, production values are also first-rate. The lighting and effects may be technically simple, but they are elegantly deployed, and perfectly cued.
Ultimately, the play would benefit from a more defined central theme. Though the playwrights hint at a humanistic tribute to the less than rich and powerful populating a pre-union with Edinburgh Leith, it could be driven home a little harder. Place is critical to the birth of The Ghosts of North Leith, and playing into this more might achieve just that. This is a small note, and truly the writers’ room behind the play have done a tremendous job in gelling their work together to make an organic whole.
That wholeness ultimately rests on Allan Hogg’s shoulders, the personable glue holding the whole together. His is a colourful presence, edged with the tragedy of his character’s great talent, and early death. Nicoll’s own story is told with huge affection, and his rousing Peoples Anthem makes a fitting bookend to proceedings. Allan Hogg’s genial presence makes him a natural host and the binding agent transforming The Ghosts of North Leith, from a collection of short plays into one cohesive, and terrifically entertaining production.
The Ghosts of North Leith is a Citadel Arts Group production, funded by the Leith Benevolent Association.