If the idea of a musical about grief sounds unlikely, it can only be because we have a limited idea of what that emotion should look like. The grief in Peter Mullan’s 1998 movie Orphans is not of the maudlin, greetings-card kind. Rather, it is raw, dangerous and off-kilter.
So it is in this National Theatre of Scotland staging, directed by Cora Bissett and scripted by Douglas Maxwell with songs by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly. It amplifies Mullan’s emotional states into the raucous, the ribald and the plaintive.
Set on a dark and stormy Glasgow night, Orphans is about four siblings from a working-class Catholic family who are about to bury their mother. Each embodies a different facet of grief.
Robert Florence as elder brother Thomas becomes neurotically protective of the dead woman’s memory, his anguish so profound it seems to rip the roof off the church. Reuben Joseph as Michael turns inward, reflecting on his damaged relationship with his ex-wife as he heads out for a bloody night of self-destruction.
Dylan Wood as youngest brother John turns angry, displacing his sense of loss into a thirst for revenge and gun-toting violence. Amy Conachan’s Sheila appears the most balanced, but she too races with a reckless abandon to fill the void left by the central figure in her life.
The chaos of the night, with its fights, funfairs and feuds, stands as a metaphor for the family’s inner turmoil. And even though it begins with a coffin and ends with a grave, the emotional extremes put a halt to sentimentality.
They also make for a buoyant show. Staged on a set of towering sandstone tenements by Emily James, Bissett’s production makes as much of the wider community – from the chorus of boozy drinkers to a trio of sharp-talking paper girls – as it does of the central players.
Faithful to the big-screen original, Maxwell’s script is characteristically funny while respecting Mullan’s dark edges. It’s a shame not to have live musicians, but the songs do well to carry the story forward, while cheerfully revelling in the Glasgow vernacular (not all of it is radio friendly). It adds up to a cathartic reckoning with mortality. Perhaps even good grief.
At SEC Armadillo, Glasgow, until 9 April. Then touring until 30 April.