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Theatre Review: A Word with Dr Johnson ***

Lorna Irvine reviews 'a fell canny experience'.

It's a gie big task, tackin' oan the creation' a new dictionary, and few men hive tried. Nain mare so than thon Sam Johnson, the guid doctor himsel'.

At least this is how James Runcie portrays the Scots language: coming from a colloquial, drunken, uncouth shower of yobs, and no mistake; whereas the English are mincing, foppish crybabies, holding hankies to their noses, lest they catch a whiff of the poor.

I jest of course. Runcie's play is a curious hybrid of historical fact, farce and drama, where the respective styles don't always co-exist fluidly and stereotypes are gently prodded.

The cast are fine, especially Mark McDonnell in the title role, and Simon Donaldson's flouncy Mr Dodsley, an advisor who narrowly avoids slipping into Blackadder territory.

The language, ironically for a historical play which focuses on erudition, is painted in either mawkish cliché or witty aphorism. But perhaps that's intentional.

Still, misgivings aside, the production is not without some hugely enjoyable staging choices, such as an A-Z duel of Auld Scots, a moving speech to Johnson's deceased wife Tetty (Gerda Stevenson, who sings rather beautifully and has nice comic moments in gender swap roles) and sly digs at a certain referendum. The melancholic ending has a resonance lacking elsewhere-but it's a fell canny experience when it gets it richt--sorry, right.

At Oran Mor until October 24 and at the Traverse from October 27-31.

Tags: theatre

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