If life is a search for meaning and purpose, Roman Stornoway has strayed from the preordained pathways of his native Lewis.
The road to contentment does not lead to kirk or croft. Instead, it leads to the booze aisle in the local supermarket and to a drinking den out on the moor.
In this, the main character in Kevin MacNeil’s novel ‘The Stornoway Way’ is depicted as having much in common with his fellow islanders, whether or not they absorb their local minister’s thunderous moralising. The play of the same name, which MacNeil also wrote, pulls no punches so far as devastating social critique is concerned.
There’s a lot in a name. Roman Stornoway can be read as romance torn away. He is also R Stornoway. He is a religious cuckoo in the nest and the key in a roman a clef. The character himself acknowledges all this. As an everyman outsider, Mister S is meant to communicate a great deal about Lewis.
Calvinism, alcohol and climate combine in a pernicious cocktail that permeates people and place. Depression, repression and addiction are endemic. So are dreams of escape.
If this is the desolate reality in which MacNeil’s characters are immersed, the play of the novel — staged by Dogstar Theatre at Sabhal Mor Ostaig last week — sugars the pill with scabrous wit, hilarious minor characters, and some truly moving songs, among them a traditional Gaelic lament rendered with crystalline clarity by Lewis-born actor Rachel Kennedy. It is a sublime moment where Roman reconnects with the culture he scorns. But the moment passes, and the song of loss and love is soon replaced with cynicism and tomorrow’s hangover.
All good writing, whether for page or stage, interweaves the personal, the local and the universal. Roman’s war is with himself and with Lewis; his dreams are of finding love and self-fulfilment. The universal arrives in the shape of Eva, a Hungarian student who initially succumbs to Roman’s scattergun charm, but who later comes to see him as self-obsessed and manipulative.
Roman is certainly that. He is also vulnerable, funny, and capable of great profundity.
Self-fulfilment comes through music, and when Roman’s long-suffering best friend Eilidh organises a session for him in a recording studio in Edinburgh, the road to salvation opens. But Roman is a master at self-sabotage. Matters don’t quite go to plan.
Naomi Stirrat as Roman, Rachel Kennedy as Eilidh and Chloe-Ann Tylor as Eva are all fine actors, and adept at lively theatricality. As an ensemble, they tick like a Swiss watch, darting here and there without missing a beat. And they can’t half belt out a tune.
As with all adaptations, there are issues concerning the episodic aspect of narrative fiction and how this works on stage, in real-time. In ‘The Stornoway Way’ scene transitions are heralded by brief drum patterns that wouldn’t sound out of place in an American sitcom.
But that is to cavil. MacNeil’s play is at least as good as his novel, and the novel was very good indeed.
Written by Michael Russell. Photos by Leila Angus.