Is Largs best stage town in Scotland?

Almost 5000 people paid good money to see two good shows, Evita and Caledonia USA in Barrfields Pavilion Theatre in the past three weeks, writes Drew Cochrane.

In a town which has about 13,000 of a population it is quite astonishing that, first, so many theatre-goers (and probably quite a number of people sitting in the Largs auditorium for the first time) turned up twice in a month for community music and drama. Secondly, that the standard of entertainment was of the highest order; it truly was.

Although I must declare an interest as both president of Largs Players and as an actor in the world premiere of the Caledonia musical, woven around the great 70s music of local singer-songwriters Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, in which other town in Scotland would you have been offered such an extravaganza of entertainment?

Whether you think of Ayr and Kilmarnock, Falkirk or Stirling, Hamilton or Motherwell I am not aware - and I have been closely involved in amateur theatre for over 40 years - of two clubs in the same town being able to pull off what thousands have just witnessed in a matter of weeks.

And you don't just need to take my word for it (reliable though it is) there were printed and online reviews from critics who compared what they saw to professional city theatre. Indeed theatre executives from London and Dublin - and one from New York - travelled to see Caledonia USA last week with a view to it going on to greater things.

If you have seen and enjoyed Sunshine on Leith, the musical written around the songs of The Proclaimers you would have been impressed by the Caledonia script written by Largs woman Maggie Grant Kinloch and tv co-writer Viv Adam which set the story, spanning four decades, in Largs itself, and, then, New York. Caledonia USA has not only sentiment and songs but substance to it too.

The thousands who paid to see it now know that it was the first stage musical to sensitively embrace the horror and tragedy of 9/11. That is why I think the Largs world premiere will be considered for Broadway and the West End.

And, no, don't worry the likes of yours truly will not be flown to the bright lights to reprise our characters. Hmmm, probably Robert de Niro will get my part.

However, for those who don't know, Largs Academy is rolling out a conveyor belt of genuinely sensational talent at this time, some of whom took centre stage in both, the Operatic Society's Evita and the Players' premiere. A few of them could go on to make a name in the professional world and, indeed, have embarked on theatre courses.

In the old days it was enough if you had some ability for acting but, now, these Academy kids are proficient at acting, singing and dancing....and all at the same time, the swines!

What a thrill too for us local folk, who strive for months to pull these very expensive shows together, that the actual stars, Gallagher and Lyle, spent the whole week in the theatre, not only performing on stage every night and matinee, but mixing with the cast, young and old, chatting in the dressing rooms and, of course, signing programme after programme. If they weren't Largs legends before, they certainly are now.

Former Largs Players actor and director, Andrew McGregor, has written a blog about the importance of amateur theatre to the future of professional shows in Scotland. He was inspired to do so after seeing the Largs shows.

He points out that while professional theatre is having to rely on small cast productions because of high costs the future may be to collaborate with talented and resourceful clubs like the Operatic and the Players to create big cast productions. Maggie and Viv gave their services and script free to the Players but, then, the world premiere could never have been staged without the army of amateur actors and volunteers over the past four months. It is a two way street to putting large scale shows into the theatre.

Benny and Graham were so proud to see their lifetime catalogue of songs laid out in this new story and to have the chance that 'When I'm Dead And Gone', 'Breakaway', 'Heart On My Sleeve, 'Heart of  New York' and brand new song, Caledonia USA etc etc could go global in this new millennium.

Picture the scene. I fly to New York to take my seat at the Broadway show, nudging the person next to me, whether thy like it or not, to say proudly, "I appeared in the world premiere of this you know."

And for those who don't know.....Academy Head of Music Craig Smith and teacher Maggie Telfer, who both sung and starred in Caledonia USA, are already in rehearsals for another theatrical blockbuster, West Side Story to follow up the school's triumphant 'Phantom of The Opera' and 'Les Miserables' sell out shows.  It happens in June; get your tickets now.