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The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh  

4.0Reviewer's rating

After first delighting audiences three years ago with Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), Isobel McArthur returns to the Lyceum with her distinctive brand of joyful storytelling. This time, she turns her irreverent eye on a classic of Scottish literature: Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Seen through the eyes of Stevenson’s formidable wife, carer and collaborator Frances Matilda Van de Grift, McArthur’s Kidnapped – a swashbuckling rom-com adventure is a fast-paced, musically driven retelling.

The original story tells of Davie Balfour (Ryan J MacKay), a young man denied his inheritance who falls in with the Jacobite hero Alan Breck Stewart (Malcolm Cumming). The two are hunted by British soldiers across Scotland, Davie trying to claim his fortune and Alan attempting to escape to France. Kidnapped – a swashbuckling rom-com adventure tells much the same story, with a few distinctive tweaks.

There is much to like about the production, which has McArthur’s stamp on it from head to toe. The fast-paced dialogue sparkles and is packed with jokes, complimenting a plethora of visual gags. Modern music erupts at opportune humorous or emotional moments, at its best when woven seamlessly into the action. The staging is frequently clever and witty, with projected maps keeping the audience on track during the central pair’s many travels across the Scottish landscape. The ensemble cast are an entertaining chorus to the main characters, with Grant O’Rourke in particular providing numerous well-delivered comic moments.

At times, the dialogue is not always as tight as we might expect from McArthur, while the musical interludes are sometimes a little heavy-handed and on the nose. The limitations of a touring set and ever-shifting staging to accommodate different venues means that set changes are occasionally clumsy and laboured. The choreography rarely meets the quality of the writing, with too many scenes devolving into what looks like uncontrolled chaos.

One thing McArthur excels at is smuggling weighty issues onto the stage behind the façade of snappy dialogue and contemporary needle drops. Identity politics, the vexed issue of Scottish independence and the way modern divisions mirror historic ones are all addressed in one way or another. In McArthur’s hands, forbidden and suppressed Jacobitism becomes a metaphor for the way queer love is still too often something dangerous in a world geared towards heteronormativity.

A queer romantic plot is inserted into the original story, touching and funny when bubbling beneath the surface, but somewhat mundane and with a hint of fan fiction when coming to fruition. It also suffers by overt comparison with the real story of the fascinating-sounding marriage between Frances and Louis (as she called him). Many of Kidnapped’s most moving and authentic moments come from Kim Ismay’s Frances, possibly because the vivid nature and complexity of her genuine relationship with Louis somewhat outshines the relatively conventional confected one.

Kidnapped is a challenging novel to bring to the stage, with its sprawling geography and sometimes laboured narrative. McArthur’s ambitious retelling is an entertaining and valiant effort, and her choice of Frances Stevenson as the framing device is inspired, but it remains a frustratingly uneven production. Happily, it never loses its sense of fun, and if it’s not perfect, that’s just because expectations are so high.

  • Comedy
  • By Isobel McArthur and Michael John McCarthy
  • Director: Isobel McArthur and Gareth Nicholls
  • After Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic
  • Cast Includes: Malcolm Cumming, Kim Ismay, Ryan J MacKay, Grant O’Rourke
  • The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh  
  • Until 22 April 2023 and then Inverness, Peth, Newcastle and Brighton
  • Running time: 2 hours 20 mins (including interval)

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