Reviewed by Flossie Waite
Andy Cannon/ Red Bridge Arts
Reviewed at National Museum of Scotland as part of Imaginate Festival
At Imaginate Festival 28th May – 5th June
For ages 7+
I remember my schoolteacher telling us that ‘history’ means ‘his story’ in a desperate bid to make what we were learning seem relevant and relatable (a sadly unsuccessful attempt as we scrutinised the open-field agricultural system and explored the Corn Laws.) She lacked Andy Cannon’s impressive ability to make historical events feel deeply personal: Tales of a Grandson offers not just a Scottish history lesson, but lessons about History.
Lesson One: Education doesn’t just happen inside the classroom. Cannon’s one-man show recalls a weekend spent with his grandparents in 1976. From ‘building’ a ruined castle in the gardem, to visiting a neolithic Henge, to evening quizzes with a pudding prize, to hunting for Nessie, young Andrew is constantly soaking up information without even realising. By the end of his holiday, he can easily explain why Scotland is Scotland (it all started when the ‘Scots’ came over from Ireland), and where the Loch Ness monster might have come from (she could be a plesiosaur dinosaur who survived in the lake even as the surrounding environment changed).
Lesson Two: Though history seems to be one long line of facts, we can manipulate the narrative. Andrew’s own story shapes his re-telling of history – we don’t learn the history of Scotland in chronological order, instead the play’s structure follows the events of Andrew’s weekend with his granny and grandad, mentioning different historical events only as he discovers them. Andrew gives equal weight to his description of a battle between the Romans and the Caledonians, and his description of the perfect way to eat a Tunnock’s teacake; he remembers seeing the 4000-year-old skull of a man found in the Henge just as vividly as he recalls only being able to order the small model of a plesiosaur from his gran’s catalogue (the large models were only available in America).
Lesson Three: History is all about imagination. “The three most important words in history”, Cannon’s script tells us, “are ‘perhaps’, ‘possibly’ and ‘maybe’.” There’s lots that we cannot be sure of looking back through time, and many ways in which our understanding of history is speculation. Andrew’s grandad gives him a pair of ‘speculators’, special goggles that help him to ‘time-travel’ – to close his eyes and see the world as it was, however far back he wishes – encouraging his enthusiastic efforts to recreate and relive the past in his mind.
Lesson Four: History doesn’t just include the famous figures we always hear about. Though Andrew sees the same figures appear again and again in the museum – Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie – his granny reminds him that history is also about all the ordinary people that didn’t make it into textbooks, but were just as important.
There’s lots to be learned in this 60-minute show, and I came away with some excellent facts – did you know that historians think the name ‘Scots’ came from the word for ‘sails’ as they were such good sailors? And did you know the Picts were so-called because they decorated their bodies with pictures and tattoos? But rather than being simply informative, Tales from a Grandson is also funny and warm – Cannon’s performance feels part-bedtime story, part-stand-up routine, and the production makes the history of a nation feel homespun.
Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.