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Reviews/Fringe World Festival/Music/Theatre

Pipe dreams

5 February 2020

Actor David Colvin tells tall tales and true about a legendary master piper in Thunderstruck, says an enchanted David Zampatti.

Review: David Colvin, Thunderstruck ·
Cookery at Girls’ School, 4 February 2020 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

In the unlikely event that wee Bon Scott were to rise from his grave in Fremantle Cemetery, he’d be roaring up the Highway to Hell to the old Girls’ School to see David Colvin’s Thunderstruck. And he’d love it. (Sure, the AC/DC classic was released after Bon’s death, with Brian Johnson singing, but you know what I mean.)

Colvin, who appeared in the greatly admired 2008 Perth Festival production of Black Watch by the National Theatre of Scotland, returns with a semi-autobiographical story based on his childhood and adolescence in Scotland’s Kingdom of Fife, and the tragic legend of the “Bin Man” from Pitlochry, Gordon Duncan, who revolutionised the playing of bagpipes in the 1990s and 2000s.

It’s an extraordinary tale, full of great humour and sadness, and Colvin is a masterful storyteller. It’s also a revelatory insight into that strange instrument, the great highland bagpipe, with its drones and its eccentric nine-note scale (low G, low A, B, C, D, E and F, high G, and high A), its fierce ugliness and impossible beauty.

Colvin himself is no slouch on the bagpipes. From being recruited as a 12-year-old by the formidable, unsmiling pipe teacher and band master, Robert Crawford – the “grumpy cunt”* – to winning a world championship with the Lochgelly High School Pipe Band and being presented with the trophy by Princess Di (a hilarious story I don’t believe for a second), playing the bagpipes has consumed him.

But it was his encounter with Duncan, the alcoholic garbage collector who did things on the bagpipes no one could have imagined and many could not countenance, that still gives Colvin his greatest joy and, ultimately, greatest sorrow. “It was bagpipe playing like I’ve never heard – filled with unbelievable longing,” Colvin remembers.

In large measure, Thunderstruck is a eulogy for Duncan, who took his own life at only 41 after being booed from the stage and all but banished from his art by establishment figures who held the reins of power in the piping hierarchy. I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between his story and the howls of outrage from traditionalists when Bob Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

Thunderstruck features some stirring music as well as the title tune – the haunting Hector the Hero a special moment – with Colvin on practice chanter and pipes, supported by a tidy four-piece rock band, some fun, unthreatening audience stamp, clap and sing-alongs, and a story as strange and memorable as the sudden sound of a lone piper at the gates of dawn.

* A note on language: there is a very great deal of it in Thunderstruck, in particular the word I have used only once in this review. You need to know (and Colvin explains during the show) that, as one dictionary reveals, it is the all-purpose noun in many parts of Scotland (while “fuck” is the all-purpose verb – see Connolly, Billy), and is neither anatomical nor derogatory. To all intents and purposes, it means “person”.

Thunderstruck runs at Girls’ School until 16 February 2020.

Pictured top: On stage in Thunderstruck, David Colvin, in kilt, instructs audience member Simon Collins (music editor of the West Australian newspaper!) in the mysteries of the practice chanter.

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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