With fame and fortune seemingly at her fingertips, Gorbals-born Mary McGowan fronted the Clyde Valley Stompers and was in the company of jazz legend Louis Armstrong. Praised by Armstrong himself for her powerful jazz voice, McGowan performed for the Queen, headlined The Cavern Club on The Beatles’ debut evening, and outsold Frank Sinatra and Doris Day in Scottish record shops. After a few years of touring, she walked away from her career to embrace domesticity in 1958, only returning for a one-off reunion show at Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre in the early 1980s. In The Sweetest Growl, A Play, A Pie and A Pint‘s latest offering at the Traverse, Claire Nicol‘s play images this moment in McGowan’s life as she prepared to brave the spotlight once again.
Nicol’s debut opens with a nervous Mary (Elaine C Smith) as she readies herself to return to the stage. She examines her life with flashbacks, from plucky schoolgirl daydreams of escaping Glasgow with best pal Kate (Hilary Lyon) for fame and ‘lobster dinners’, to hitting her stride only to shun a promising career in favour of marriage to Robert Menzies (George Drennan), a man in the Merchant Navy, and raising a family.
Both touching and amusing, there’s a heart at the core of this piece as we flash through a lifetime. Great dialogue and a compelling delivery from Smith result in a fully realised portrayal of McGowan and her character, which is strongly backed by Lyon and Drennan’s respective performances and the slick direction from Lesley Hart.
Nicol can’t tell us why McGowan chose the path she did (and unfortunately we are unable to ask the late singer herself); instead, Nicol uses the intriguing story to stimulate thought, showcasing a trailblazing woman in a male-controlled industry within a patriarchal culture, with traditional gendered roles such as women being the homemakers still firmly in play. This complex dynamic of career pressure, just ahead of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 60s, takes focus through Mary and Kate’s friendship, probing at how the choices we make can be perplexing to others amidst societal influence.
With fantastic music, including ‘(Open Up Them) Pearly Gates’ and ‘Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home’, this dedication manages to entertain and pay tribute to a wonderfully talented woman while gently questioning the choices women had in the 1950s and what it means in our contemporary climate. Without ever veering into triteness or wheedling, The Sweetest Growl is a rousing finish to the Traverse’s autumn season of A Play, A Pie and A Pint.