Saturday, March 31, 2007

"When A Star Falls" - March 2007

We've seen so many shows by the Scottish Youth Theatre over the years (going back as far as "John Paul Jones" and "Into the Woods" long before their shiny new home in Brunswick Street) and we've grown to have very high expectations. However, most of our SYT experience has been of the Summer Festival shows with large casts so it was quite a change to see this pared down production with an on stage cast of only six.

The play is set at the Antonine Wall with a group of young people gathered to watch a meteor shower but it's clear from the beginning that this group come from very different social and geographical backgrounds and isn't a cosy group of friends. Each have their own agendas, prejudices and secrets - some will be revealed, others only hinted at. It's well written with snappy dialogue and makes some very effective points about national identity and how we treat "incomers" of all varieties. Although the show worked well, I'm not sure if the points wouldn't have been better served without the alien plot and removing it would have made the whole show more grounded. The ending also left a little to be desired - but that's probably due to me preferring "certainty to truth" as the play puts it.

Performances from the cast were all of a high standard but possibly because it was a matinee or because it wasn't quite a full house, there wasn't quite the sparkle of the great performances I'm sure these guys can deliver. And I can say that with certainty as we were delighted to see Katrina Innes performing as "BB" - she absolutely blew us away a few years ago in her role as Mrs Lovett in the SYT's "Sweeney Todd" and that performance still ranks as one of the best we have ever seen in the Citizens Circle studio. Innes and Ruaridh Caddell as "Evan" had the additional baggage of having to carry off foreign accents but held them well throughout and after a quiet first half Innes does get the chance to shine in the later stages of the play. Ashleigh Kate Wilson as "Vonnie" provides comic relief that doesn't seem out of place although while her timing is good some of the gags are a little poor (meters/meteors).

The show makes good use of both music and of an on-screen chorus and with a running time of 85 minutes must be exhausting for a cast who are almost constantly on stage. "When a Star Falls" raises interesting ideas in an entertaining and enjoyable way, but I think next time we might skip the matinee as I think the energy levels did suffer for it.


Friday, March 30, 2007

"Ice Cream Dreams" - March 2007

It was a brave decision by TAG and the Citizens to team up two professional actors with the Citizens Community Company, members of the Citizens Young Company and a group of former addicts. To then stage the production in the main theatre rather than the Circle Studio was beyond bravery. Now seems a good time to add a quick reminder that as with reviews of all community/amateur productions no allowances have been made - we expect the same high standards for all shows.

Set around the time of the Glasgow "Ice Cream Wars" the play focuses on brother and sister Barry and Jo-jo McConn - their battle to keep Jo-jo off the heroin that is sweeping the city, and their dead father's own alcohol dependency. Martin McCardie's tale also introduces some of the other characters in the drug scene and a large chorus with their own personal takes on the impact of drugs.

Helen McAlpine & Owen Gorman as Jo-jo and Barry hold the central story together well and McAlpine in particular gives an excellent portrayal of a desperate addict. Performance of the night however belongs to Tom Beattie as their dead father who has a great presence and is obviously completely comfortable on stage. Gavin Forker as "The Landlord" also produces a very effective performance and succeeds in giving the character depth and making him much more sympathetic than he has any right to be. Despite a couple of hesitant moments the rest of the large cast also perform well and it would be difficult to identify the newcomers had we not seen many of the faces before in "My Bloody Valentine"

As a play, McCardie has created a powerful piece of theatre - considerably more so than the much lauded "Aalst". I don't normally like comparing pieces but seeing these two in such quick succession with their similar themes of society's underclass makes it almost impossible not to. Where the repetition of dialogue in "Aalst" seemed disjointed "Ice Cream Dreams" used it to great effect with some surprising and humourous wordplay. "Ice Cream Dreams" also makes much better use of a musical soundtrack.

This was a serious, dark but entertaining show giving a close up look at personal dependency but placing it in the wider context, while asking difficult and uncomfortable questions of the audience - everything issue based drama should be.

Well done to all those involved in putting it together and performing it - with "Ice Cream Dreams" they certainly hit on a winning recipe.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Aalst" - March 2007

Based on the true events surrounding a Belgian couple who have killed their young children believing it to be "for the best", Duncan McLean's adaptation of Pol Heyvaert's original for Scotland is receiving a lot of publicity even before tonight's opening performance. With an onstage cast of two, and a disembodied voice, "Aalst" would always be relying heavily on the quality of its cast. Fortunately for this show by the NTS at the Tramway in Glasgow, Kate Dickie, David McKay and the voice of Gary Lewis are more than up to the job, but sadly the material lets them down a little and overall "Aalst" falls short of the hype.

For me the most obvious failing in this examination of the motivations of the parents is actually the soundscore by Das Pop. It doesn't sit well and proves distracting at several points and while the Euro influence is clear, given how much of the play has been adapted for a Scottish audience I think the score would have been much more effective had it reflected this also.

Alone on stage speaking into microphones on stands, Dickie and McKay excel and produce startlingly emotional performances - but there are problems with the tone for much of the dialogue. We start off with the pair answering questions from the unseen inquisitor in slightly stuttering terms or as if reading prepared answers, and although no doubt accurate it doesn't make for great theatre. Just as I had resigned myself that this was the way things would be, we unexpectedly changed to a more natural set of responses - in fact quite gallus, offering an element of backchat. The shift isn't really explained but continues for a good 10 minutes enabling the audience to laugh with (and at) the characters. But then just as suddenly we're back with the halting responses, although the "sharper" responses do make a brief return later. This may be down to the fact that the dialogue has been partly based on court transcripts and reflects differing moods of the individuals, but I can't help but feel that it would have been a better show had we seen the more polished dialogue throughout.

The issues raised in the performance also fall a little flat - okay, so reports show they weren't abnormal people, so they were just "bad"? This doesn't mean the play has a message that any of us could find ourselves in the position of this pair. So what are we saying - that there are some horrible people out there who do horrific things? Welcome to the World.

"Aalst" isn't half as shocking as it thinks it is, and as a piece of "entertainment" it is let down by the stuttering dialogue and poor scoring. But as a masterclass in emotional acting it delivers. Memorable performances, forgettable show.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

"Volpone" - March 2007

Sadly not a review - more of a lesson learned, so apologies to those of you hoping to hear all about this show... Back at the start of the year we spent a lot of time scheduling what shows to see, and although we liked the sound of "Volpone" by Theatre Babel at the Citizens, we had so many other theatre trips planned around the same time we had to drop a couple - including "Volpone".

Those of you who visit us by way of the Scottish Theatre Forum will now be wondering why "Volpone" was included in our upcoming shows when we updated our banner only last week. Well, we managed to find an opening in our diaries that we thought would allow us to catch "Volpone" after all. Sadly, although the Citizens website suggested there were tickets available, when we actually tried to book we discovered that it was sold out - and not just for that show but for the entire run. Suddenly finding ourselves disappointed and feeling like we were missing out on something, we even tried to see the show in Perth - only to find it sold out there also.

I guess it was just a show we were never meant to see, but it has reminded us that we shouldn't always expect to be able to book up at short notice, and it is great to see shows like this selling out in advance. But we will make sure we book up nice and early for Theatre Babel's next production because they obviously have a great reputation.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Are you positive?

Regular readers of the blog may notice a pattern in our reviews. By and large they are positive, and we're happy with what we've seen. Does this mean we're too easily pleased?

The simple answer is 'we pays our money and we makes our choice'. We don't have a features editor giving us a list of shows to see, we don't have complimentary tickets swaying our decisions as to whether to review something or not. Whatever we review we've carefully selected as something that interests us - whether it's because we've seen something by the company before, we know the piece, or the blurb has caught our eye. We then put our money where our mouth is.

Our primary purpose for going to the theatre is simply to have a good time. Everything we see has that at it's heart, and we hope that we won't be disappointed. We don't always know quite what to expect, but we always hope to be entertained.

We don't always agree on what we want to see - I'm working hard on trying to get Statler to go to some more musical theatre for example! However we're unlikely to go to something that we don't think we'll get some enjoyment out of. In addition if one of us much preferred the play to the other, that person is more likely to do the review, with the other saving their comments for their heckle.

Have we ever come out of something wishing we'd stayed at home that night? Certainly! You may notice a lack of productions staged at 2 of Glasgow's largest theatres - The King's and The Theatre Royal. We've learned our lessons there - and something has to be really tempting to drag us back. Our last visits to both theatres were before the time period covered by this blog, but we feel we've got to mention them for balance.

The National Theatres' (NB not the NTS) production of "An Inspector Calls" at The King's was a huge disappointment. A hugely impressive mechanical set just distracted from what is one of my favourite plays. Possibly as a result of the confining nature of the set, the performances lacked any openness.

"Framed" at the Theatre Royal was described as a modern thriller but didn't live up to its promises. If you have to resort to long declamatory, Bond villian style explanations then something's gone wrong somewhere. We decided after this that if a play's main selling point was pushing 'Joe Bloggs from Some Really Dreadful Soap Opera' then it's probably not something we want to see. The Theatre Royal has the added benefit of being one of the most uncomfortable theatres to sit in.

We do try to give our honest opinion on what we've seen, and we hope that this explains how we arrive at our reviews.


"The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" - March 2007

It takes a lot of courage to step into the shoes of Jane Horrocks in the role of LV that was written for her, but, and lets get this out of the way right at the start, Denise Hoey's vocals are nothing short of incredible. However this isn't a one woman show and although truly stunning, the singing set pieces are only a small part of this performance.

There are some very clever aspects to the staging of this show by Visible Fictions at the Citizens (and touring) - notably the effective use of a narrator and a well conveyed "upstairs" room. The other main conceit is the use of a sound effects track that accompanies the characters actions when opening bottles, cupboards etc, and while funny at times and truly inspired on one occasion it's a lot of effort for something that wasn't entirely necessary and I think the single inspired use would have been just as good on its own.

The acting was good throughout but I could really have done with having the portrayal of Mari (LV's mother) dialled down a level or six. Playing her OTT for comic effect did achieve the desired laughs but I feel it lessened the impact of the neglect and abuse of LV.

I'm not going to go on for pages and pages about just how good Denise Hoey's singing performance is (although I could). Suffice to say it is everything you could hope for and more. But I would like to take the time to highlight her acting performance as the quiet, unspeaking LV. This was every bit as impressive as her strong vocals and in very subtle ways conveyed the introverted and frustrated LV to the audience.

Before attending this I had concerns - musicals are not really my thing and I was afraid this might be a little too close to musical theatre for comfort. But I was completely won over by a remarkable individual performance and strong supporting cast and I'm fairly confident that in many years time I'll still remember seeing this show.
If you want to hear a little flavour of Denise Hoey's vocal talents from the show, there is an interview/performance piece she did for Radio Scotland posted on Denise' Website in the blog section. And while you're there don't miss her excellent short film "Ten Thousand Pictures of You" that plays on the front page and which has been entered in the MyMovie Mash Up Short Film Contest.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

"The Recovery Position" - March 2007

The blurb for this devised semi-promenading show by the NTS Young Company at The Platform in Easterhouse was all a bit vague and apart from a general ER/Casualty type feel I really wasn't sure what it would entail. The Young Company had drafted in some assistance for the show in the form of a couple of additional cast members and Director Mark Murphy. While not flawless, what followed was at turns stunning, beautiful, emotional and thought provoking.

The audience walked through a number of short scenes in different sections of a well disguised library that introduced the main characters we would follow for the next hour or so, and with a little prompting and positioning from production assistants the audience moved fairly fluidly - although maybe 5 or 10 less of us would have made things slightly easier.

We're given hints and insights into a number of relationships and get the chance to see some fantastically expressive and subtle acting - particularly from Maryam Hamidi. But it's when we reach our seats in the auditorium that things really begin. Part of this is that the audience feel more comfortable in their traditional seated role, and also because we suddenly feel free to laugh at the jokes that at times seemed a little uncomfortable up the stairs.

I'm going to avoid going into much of the plot, but for the most part it is well written and a good balance between humour and darkness, and I was genuinely unsure of the outcome. There is at least one moment that is almost jaw-dropping (Kirstin McLean - you are one gutsy lady) and some of the choreography/poetic dialogue nope the only word that describes it is beautiful. But this isn't here for its own sake - it also provides very effective imagery to reflect what is going on.

Now I said it wasn't flawless, so here goes... One of the three relationships is less clear than the other two and should really have been expanded, and some of the observations about relationships were a touch cliched and unoriginal.

The performances are universally of a high standard, but it's really Hamidi, McLean and Carmen Pieraccini who take the real plaudits here; hitting perfect notes of emotion and comedy.

My criticism of the Young Company's previous "Self Contained" was that it possibly wasn't ambitious enough for a talented young group with NTS backing, but they have really made up for it with "The Recovery Position." As the show only runs for 5 nights with a small audience I consider myself very fortunate to have seen it - much the same way I was fortunate to see Grid Iron/NTS production of "Roam" at Edinburgh Airport last year. I'm sure there will be plenty of people preparing comparisons between the two - and the Young Company should have little to worry about in that respect.

I think this may be the current Young Company's last show before moving on, but I'm sure well be seeing these guys in shows (and writing shows) for many years to come.