Anna “Nan” Shepherd was a Scottish Modernist writer and poet. Though best known for her seminal mountain memoir, The Living Mountain, she is probably more recognisable to most people from her presence (since 2016) on the Scottish £5 note, which makes her the first female writer to appear on a British banknote.
Nan Shepherd: Howling At The Machine is an animated lecture on Shepherd's life, the “animation” coming not from the lecture format's somewhat customary projection of a series of pictures and short film-clips (which is also present) but from the presence of set, props and a series of appearances by costumed volunteers playing, amongst others, Philip Marlowe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau General Ludendorff, a robot and Virginia Wolfe.
These cameos are a big part of the show's home-made appeal, evident even before the show began as writer/narrator Erlend Clouston, already on-stage as we entered, covered the time before the all-clear from the front of house staff with a few jokes and some brief exchanges with the audience. In the show itself, some of the costumes, props, and sound-effects can be makeshift, several of the performers are basically reading of cue cards on the back of a convenient prop and transitions can take a couple of seconds too long, but that isn't what the show is about, and the show knows it and makes it part of the fun. They are there, like the audience making horse sound-effects at points, to enliven and puncture the show.
Its subject was, to me at least, little known and it is clearly close to the heart of all those involved. A lot of effort has gone into making the show as entertaining as possible and in placing Nan Shepherd (played here by Su Clark, who one almost wishes we could have heard more from) in her historical, literary and philosophical context. There is an evident love for the facts of this author's life and Clouston's personal connection to her is clear. The performances of the volunteers may not be flawless but the time and passion they have put in is equally testament to how much this writer means to them, and the vocal appearances of, amongst others, Björk and Tilda Swinton show the international reach that passion for this author has.
This show is a lot more personal and lively (in a heart-felt, unassuming way) than the cold term “lecture” implies, though its fact-based, educative aspect makes the word probably the most suitable one. For anyone with an interest in this author or her work, or even just a curiosity about the bluish face they often find in their wallet, this entertaining and educational exploration is a very interesting and engaging look at this Scottish writer.
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins
Reviewed: 26th February 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★