A Tapestry of Many Threads is a 19-song cycle commissioned by the Dovecote Studios for its centenary from Alexander McCall Smith (words) and Tom Cunningham (music).
Its subject is the Dovecote tapestries themselves, which also feature in slide and film: the subjects, the stories in them, the techniques of making them, and the unfashionable qualities of stillness and patience needed to be a weaver. Framed in a slightly arch Socratic dialogue between a weaver (mezzo Beth Mackay) and a poet (bass-baritone Andrew McTaggart) the songs are frankly celebratory and accessible. Cunningham works within a very conventional tonal palette, but he has a real gift for genuine original melody – much rarer than you might think – and incorporates vigorous folk influences, blues and swing as well as tints of Debussy and Vaughan Williams in folk mode. At least two of the numbers (Waters of Life, Only the Moon) deserve to become cabaret standards.
McCall Smith’s lyrics are slightly more problematic. While he steers well clear of the schmaltz you might expect from the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, he doesn’t quite avoid sententiousness. When you hear “In our blood runs a capacity to embrace the suffering,” you can’t help thinking it would be a tad better to sing “In our blood we can feel the pain”. More concrete, more singable – and shorter.
Despite this cavil, the concept of the show is entirely effective, and its overall impact punches well above the weight of the resources on show. Which is not to disparage those; MacTaggart’s is a formidable voice with impeccable diction in the echo-ey acoustic of a converted swimming pool, and McKay possesses an enchanting stage presence in addition to her tasty vocal cords. The song cycle gets a simple but effective semi-staging. Tactful piano support is supplied by pianist Stuart Hope and violinist Jacqueline Norris, in turns plaintive and bouncy.
The first night audience was entirely local, but visitors should head to the Dovecote, both for the show and the gorgeous tapestry exhibition. A Tapestry… deserves the widest audience. Within its modest compass it touches on big themes – creativity, permanence, harmony with the natural world. Despite being a site-specific creation, it could and should easily tour.