Star Turn

March 31, 2000

Gibbets, daggers and Sinatra-style voice warm-ups... Olga Wotjas has a backstage pass to Glasgow's Stow College

Room 523 in Glasgow's Stow College is like any other drably functional seminar room in the land. Apart from the gibbet, that is.

A frantically struggling student is dragged towards it by two others, who pinion him to the wooden structure. "You can scream," says lecturer Stephen Langston. "Help! Help!" squeaks the student in a high-pitched falsetto.

The student, who represents the honest Scots peasantry being brutalised by 13th-century English invaders, echoes the anguished cry.

About 20 students from the further education college are taking part in a three-hour evening rehearsal of Langston's musical, Wallace, which aims to be a more accurate account of Scotland's national hero than Mel Gibson's film Braveheart.

A music graduate of Liverpool University, Langston has a postgraduate qualification from the London College of Music in composing for film and television, and has written a range of large-scale orchestral works. He now teaches composing and arranging at Stow, and has drawn on his ceilidh band expertise to give a Scottish flavour to the score's rich mixture of catchy, plangent and war-like melodies.

The students clearly like the music and sing with gusto, their confidence boosted by the presence of several professional singers.

But getting them to performance level has not been easy: while some are students on Langston's diploma course in music technology, none can read music. "I've had to teach by ear," Langston says. "We had tapes made of the whole show, and we just played it again and again, bar by bar. Getting them to sing isn't the hard thing - it's making sure they don't strain themselves and overdo it. Teaching them to use their throats and diaphragms properly has been hard."

He makes the group go through warm-up exercises that sound like a Frank Sinatra tribute. "Come on. Dooby dooby dooby dooby do. Spit those words out. Even if you warm up at the start of the show, there are gaps and you'll be cold again. You have to do voice exercises, drink lots of water and relax."

The students are obviously having fun as they play licentious soldiers, drunken nobles and downtrodden serving wenches on the English side, and generally heroic Scots.

Most have to fit part-time work alongside their studies, and the schedule of evening rehearsals is a major extra commitment. When cast members are not needed in particular scenes, they go to a quiet room to catch up on coursework. "I've had to take holidays from work for the rehearsals and performances," says one student. "I'm doing it because it's a good challenge and I'm enjoying it."

Langston galvanises the cast into action with his own energy, alternating between playing an upright piano, and dashing over to the actors with advice on the action. "Rush on, don't ponce on! I need crowd noise the minute you're on the stage. Rhubarb, rhubarb. No, not rhubarb. Talk about the price of hens."

One scene shows how Wallace becomes an outlaw after accidentally killing the son of the evil Lord Selby. But creating the accident is proving problematic. A bullied Scot is attacking young Selby with a dagger, which is supposed to end up in Wallace's hands. But the moves look awkward and unconvincing, admittedly not helped by the dagger's being a Biro.

"There's something not right," says Langston, leaping into the melee. He creates a new scenario, with young Selby knocking down the Scot and preparing to skewer him with a sword. Wallace draws his dagger to divert the young man from the killing. But when Selby turns on Wallace instead, the reprieved Scot jumps up and pushes him on to the dagger. The surrounding students burst into applause as young Selby expires spectacularly. "We can have lots of blood!" says one. "We can't have any blood," Langston replies. "We can't afford to wash the clothes."

Angela Cameron, who plays Wallace's mother, has the advantage of having been a singer before joining Langston's course at Stow. "I'm a full-time student and working part time, so it's quite tiring, but I love it," she says. "He's great, he's very friendly, and he's coping incredibly well, considering we've got a week to go before the first performance - and he's given up smoking!"

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