Sunday, April 22, 2007

"Re:Union" - April 2007

“To celebrate the 300th Anniversary of the Act of Union between Scotland and England and the upcoming Scottish Elections, 7:84 has commissioned four writers to examine the theme of Separation and Reconciliation with four momentous historical events as a backdrop: Ireland 1921; Pakistan 1947; Croatia 1991; Scotland 2007.” So read the promotional blurb for “Re:Union”.

As a fan of political theatre I was looking forward to this production by 7:84 at the Citizens Circle Studio. The piece was made up of 4 distinct playlets each performed by some or all of the cast of four.

First up was “Wound” by Nicola McCartney “inspired by events in Ireland 1921”. This was a fairly standard piece of kitchen sink domestic drama. Angry and violent teenage daughter (Ionia Ni Chronin) wants to leave her adoptive parents (Jacqui Chan & Billy Riddoch) to find her birth mother who may or may not want her back. Umar Ahmed also featured as a paramedic caught up in the domestic strife. Chan gives a strong performance with her anguish clear and her decisions believable. It worked well enough if taken at face value and was well performed but even after brushing up on my Irish history I’m afraid I have no idea how this was meant to relate to the political situation.

Next was “Eclipse” by Haresh Sharma which was performed as a monologue by Umar Ahmed portraying three generations of a family. This spoke directly of the Partition of India/Pakistan and provided a couple of nice surprises along the way. While descriptive of the effects of Partition it was clear from the narrative that other factors such as war and personal weakness played more of a factor in the difficulties the family faced. Ahmed’s performance was incredibly watchable and at times very moving and really drew the audience in, but any political message was muffled at best.

Ahmed was certainly earning his performance fee for this production as he featured again in “A Time To Go” by Selma Dimitrijevic inspired by events in Croatia 1991. A two hander with Riddoch and Ahmed playing father and son this was the most effective of the four pieces at face value. A very nice structure with father and son providing their own parts of two similar and related conversations they have shared at family occasions over different timeframes. It’s a poetic piece of writing and brilliantly performed with an element of movement playing a large role as well. A lovely piece of theatre but any link to 1991 Croatia was way beyond my understanding.

The last of the four pieces reunited all four cast members for “Doch-an-Doris” by Linda McLean looking at the potential separation of Scotland from England in 2007. Seen through a couple on the verge of divorce (Riddoch & Chan) having a “can’t live together, can’t live apart” moment while their two children try to bring about a reconciliation. A nicely observed piece on the end of relationships and well performed by all - particularly Ionia Ni Chronin as the daughter. Sadly though, even for this most topical and locally important piece it didn’t work for me beyond the personal level.

Between each of the pieces we had a series of short questions about the future of Scottish society raised on TV monitors. All vital concerns, and it’s just a shame that the playlets didn’t really make any useful contribution to addressing them.

Had I been coming along to see four playlets addressing family issues and conflict I have no doubt I’d have left the theatre very happy, but as someone who thought I would be seeing a production with something to say for itself politically, I left disappointed and a little confused. Maybe its message was too subtle for me, maybe my historical knowledge wasn’t sufficient to decode it, or maybe it just missed the target. It wouldn’t put me off seeing a future 7:84 production but I don’t think I’d have the hopes for it that I had for “Re:Union”.


Saturday, April 14, 2007

"Black Watch" - 14 April 2007

Update 9 June 2007 - see comments below for details on a radio performance of this.

By rights this review of "Black Watch" by the NTS at the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow only needs one sentence: "Believe the hype - everything you have ever heard about this show is true." What could I possibly add amongst all the 5 star ratings from respected professional reviews? Well tonight (14th April) we saw a slightly different performance of "Black Watch" to the ones they saw...
Due to his commitments with "Spanglebaby" which we had seen earlier in the week, Brian Ferguson was unavailable for a couple of the Glasgow performances of Black Watch, including tonight. As a result Paul Rattray stepped up from his usual role of "Granty" to play the central role of "Cammy", with Jonathan Holt stepping in as "Granty". To be honest I was disappointed to discover this as I'd heard great things about Ferguson's performance as "Cammy" and had enjoyed his performance in "Spanglebaby". Of course there are times an understudy is required, but I'm not altogether happy about it being due to them performing in another show half a mile along the road - surely better scheduling could have prevented this. Anyway, given the circumstances I think more than my original one sentence review is deserved.

The Old Fruitmarket was a great venue, although it proved a little problematic as we waited to be ushered into the performance space - get there early! I still don't believe there is anything I can add to the wealth of praise for the play but I need to highlight just how brilliantly it is structured. The set pieces all hit the mark one after another, and although in the first half I was concerned that while impressed, I wasn't emotionally invested in the characters, the second half put me right on that. I also *knew* I was watching something a bit special during the final set piece as I felt that genuine spine-tingling moment that can't be mistaken.

I'm not going to spend any time commenting on the cast in general as it's comprehensively covered elsewhere, but I would say that Tom Smith's performance was so exceptional I had no idea he was the same actor playing his two distinct roles until reading it after the show. Rattray gave a great performance as "Cammy" making him just sympathetic enough to keep the audience onside while not softening him too much. Apart from minor difficulties in the choreographed on stage costume change you would never have suspected this was not his usual role, and it's difficult to see that Ferguson could have played it any better. Similarly Jonathan Holt was excellent as "Granty" and didn't look out of place in the slightest. Given the energy of the piece and the intricate choreography it's incredible they can integrate the changes so seamlessly.

Believe the hype - everything you have heard about this show is true.

Edit 31 March 2008 - And is still true almost a year later when we saw the show again!

Photograph by Manuel Harlan, used with permission.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

"Spanglebaby" - April 2007

"Spanglebaby" is Poorboy's latest production and after missing last year's "Falling" I was keen to catch this one on opening night at The Arches theatre festival. Famous for their promenading pieces "Spanglebaby" restricts its movements to one section of the venue as we walk from area to area following the characters. The premise of a charismatic business leader founding a "Better Life" virtual world was intriguing, but in fact turned out to be the least interesting aspect to the show.

The initial 20 minute set up explaining the concept of "Better Life" is a bit of a drag for those even vaguely familiar with the existing "Second Life" but does allow for a couple of nice gags and I guess is required for those less "virtually inclined". Or maybe not...

Because after this the "Better Life" concept largely disappears and we focus on the relationship between boss Richard (Brian Ferguson) and his P.A. "Amy Rose" (Ashley Smith) and from here on the business they are in is largely irrelevant - they could be selling socks and the story would still work. What we're presented with is a bit of an "Ugly Betty" situation - competent but quirkily dressed Personal Assistant working for a demanding boss. This is where the show comes into its own and we see Richard crumble under pressure from above and take out his frustrations on Amy Rose. Their final confrontation really gives Ferguson and Smith a chance to show off their skills.

Played out in the background is the desire by Amy Rose to get into Art School with her photography project, and for one glorious moment I thought this was to be used in a sublime twist but sadly the opportunity was missed, and in its current form I'm not sure how much it added to the piece.

Now this being a Poorboy production I need to comment on the promenading aspect of the show. The blurb about the show handed out to the audience includes a definition of "Spanglebaby" stating that it is "noun, 17th (Century), a person attracted to inconsequential novelty, new fashions or trends". I'm not at all sure that I'm buying this as a genuine word/definition but if so it would appear to apply to Poorboy's attraction to promenading performances in this instance. It just seemed as if it could all have been done just as effectively if properly staged around a fixed area. There is a place for promenading pieces - but not just for the sake of it.

There is a really good show in here, but it's bubbling under the surface and only makes appearances from time to time. The "Better Life" setting could be ditched for something that requires less explanation and give more time to focus on the relationship between Richard and Amy Rose because that is the strength of the piece. I do need to mention the use of strobe lighting - there may have been a technical failure, but that was by far the worst use of strobe lighting I have ever come across - far too fast a frequency and it absolutely destroyed the scene rather than adding to it - sort it out guys.

The infosheet said that the initial plan was to present the show as a work in progress, and to be honest that's probably how I'll think of it - great acting performances but a script that needs to focus on it's strengths and ditch the padding.

Oh yeah, and if you want to know the twist I thought was about to delight me drop me an e-mail at and I'll reveal all.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"Futurology: A Global Revue" - April 2007

"Futurology: A Global Revue" has been put together by Suspect Culture, National Theatre of Scotland and Brighton Festival and the basic premise of the piece is an international conference of delegates brought together to discuss the problems facing the planet - with specific reference to climate change. Although not a musical it has strong musical theatre elements, along with dance and touches of observational, satirical and physical comedy. The closest in structure I've come to this before was Scottish Youth Theatre's "Ugly Duckling" where a tale is used as a mechanism to give each performer their own moment to shine.

Now before I go any further, I need to declare that in general musicals do absolutely nothing for me and with one or two exceptions the aren't the kind of thing I enjoy - I just don't buy into the whole singing/dancing thing. So please keep that in mind when considering my thoughts on "Futurology".

I'm not going to go into much detail on the plot as I think it benefits from going in to this largely blind, but the first of two main strands involves following the delegate from the tiny Sandwich Islands as she negotiates convention politics - both national and personal. The second strand is set around the relationship of the host mayor with his public outside the walls of the convention centre. The two intertwine well with several of the cast of 8 playing multiple roles.

The format works well with each performer getting their chance as a delegate to address the conference or come to the forefront by other means and express their nations views through their own particular skill/speciality. Some of the set pieces work better than others - with "Whistle Bang" my favourite of the song and dance numbers and our "ventriloquist" act a comedic highlight. Our "host couple" formed a nice double act and other cast members were also impressive - detailing them here would ruin some of the fun. The use of Powerpoint also provided some nice additional amusement. Perhaps because of the cabaret structure I didn't have the same issues I have with musicals generally and I quickly found myself fully involved with the show.

There are problems with some of the songs - although tonight was a preview I felt the sound levels should really have been better, and for one or two of the songs it was difficult to pick out the lyrics - a shame, as the ones I caught were worth hearing. Hopefully this is something that can be addressed as the run progresses.

I'm also not sure how effective the production is at achieving its presumed aims of highlighting issues of climate change. Some of the speeches get a little preachy and I found the show working best as an observational piece about conferences in general rather than the global warming issue, but overall the resounding impression is just one of great fun.

"Futurology" as a vision of the future? Mmm, not sure. As a vision of the future of Musical Theatre? Yes please. Definitely worth seeing if you can on its tour of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen & Brighton.


Friday, April 06, 2007

"The Chicago Project" - April 2007

"Seven new short plays written by young people from Chicago's Steppenwolf Cross-Town Ensemble. Performed by the Citizens' Young Co." Unfortunately those two sentences from the programme are at the heart of the problems with this production. Much of the joy in previous Young Co productions such as "Geeks Greeks & Party Myths" or Citizens Community Company productions like "My Bloody Valentine" comes from the fact that they are devised or specially written pieces very much with the Citizens audience in mind. Understandably the component parts of "The Chicago Project" lack that targeting and unfortunately something appears to have been lost mid-Atlantic. Probably best to run through each of the segments in turn...

"This Charming Man" by Erin Nederbo was an effective two hander about saying goodbye, and featured strong performances by Omar Raza and Amanda McColl. It was always clear where this was heading but the incremental moves towards the conclusion worked well.

I'm afraid "A Lesson Learned" by Katie McCoy just didn't work for me, despite an excellent central performance by Fiona McCann and some nice touches of direction. Its tale of recovering a disturbing memory didn't actually have much to say and the conclusion left me a little perplexed to be honest.

"Hang Up" by Hope Rehak was by far my favourite piece of the evening. A wonderfully put together part-real, part-imagined conversation between two "friends" who have drifted apart much to the regret of one of them. Touching performances by both Andrea Punty and Gemma McGinlay added to very natural sounding dialogue. I was left wanting just that little bit more from the piece - I wanted to hear that final phone call. Great stuff - with the "flash photography" direction a particularly nice touch.

"It's all in the Box" by "Benton Reynolds" Whoosh!!! Intended as light relief this one went way over my head once we got past the initial concept (which I did quite like).

Siblings returning to their home after the death of their mother was the focus of "If We Were Green" by Dan Dvorkin. A very "nice" performance by Alex Barr held this one together but I don't think the writing made the most of what could have been a powerful idea.

"This Just In!" by Majdi Badri was an urban myth style tale which didn't really have the twist or humour to make the piece work. It also wasn't really helped by using a female cast member as one of the two competing boyfriends.

"Empty House" by Geneva Redmond was a little like watching "Aalst" all over again, particularly with a stand-out performance by Eve Nicol but Fouad Samimy and Martin Haddow also brought depth to their roles. What was here was well enough written and the overlaid dialogue worked well, but there was just too much left unsaid for my taste.

Overall it wasn't in any way an unenjoyable evening, but it's difficult not to consider it a disappointment when only one of the seven pieces really captured my enthusiasm. The problems weren't with the acting but I think more with the whole concept of performing plays written from a distance and I suspect that if the cast had maybe been given a bit more room to adapt the pieces/dialogue for a local audience then more would have hit the mark. Although I should add that the audience reaction was generally very positive, so it may have just been me who had a problem tonight.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Now Booking / Coming Soon - April to August 2007

Well that's the first quarter of 2007 gone already and we've reviewed 10 shows already. It's been a great start to the year's theatregoing with a number of memorable shows for many different reasons with NTS Young Company's "The Recovery Position" probably the highlight. We've not got quite as busy a schedule at the moment for the next few months although we'll no doubt add to this list as time goes on. In particular we're still hoping to see Rapture's "Broken Glass" and of course a whole host of shows from the Edinburgh Festival. But in the meantime...

The Chicago Project - Citizens Young Company, Thursday 5th-7th April @ The Citizens
We enjoyed "Geeks, Greeks & Party Myths" last year so we're looking forward to seeing this production of 7 short playlets by young Americans performed by a young Glasgow cast. Review now posted.

Futurology: A Global Revue, NTS 10th-14th April @ SECC (then Edinburgh, Aberdeen & Brighton)
I still have almost no idea what to expect from this one but it definitely falls into the category of "Interesting" and with tickets still available for £5 on the first night in Glasgow this must be the bargain of the year. Review now posted.

Spanglebaby, Poorboy @ The Arches, 12th-14th April
A look at the increasing trend to live a "virtual" life. Showing as part of The Arches Theatre Festival. We missed out on tickets for Poorboy's promenading "Falling" last year so really pleased to have spotted this one just in time. Review now posted.

Black Watch - NTS 13th-26th April @ Old Fruitmarket Glasgow (& Touring)
Finally we can stop kicking ourselves for missing this at the Festival last year. With so many 5 star reviews and awards it's hard to keep expectations under control for this one. I'm sure tickets will be going quickly so if you haven't booked yet, what are you waiting for??? Review now posted.

Re:Union - 7:84 @ The Citizens and on an extensive tour April/May
Having always been a fan of political theatre I'm keen to see this production of 4 tales based around the historical separation of nations - Ireland 1921; Pakistan 1947; Croatia 1991; Scotland 2007. Review now posted.

The Tempest - Northern Broadsides 30th May - 2nd June @ The Citizens
Not being a huge Shakespeare fan this is more Waldorf's choice than mine but Northern Broadside's reputation was enough to secure my attendance. Review now posted.

The Wonderful World of Dissocia - National Theatre of Scotland, Traverse 6th to 9th June (and extensively on tour in England)

Although this started its tour in Glasgow at the Tron we decided to give it a miss as it sounded just a little too weird, even for our taste. However the reaction to the production when it reached London was so intense and polarised that we regretted our decision, but fortunately the show visits Edinburgh at the end of the tour so we'll get the chance to decide for ourselves. Review now posted

We Will Rock You - STF Productions, 18th to 23rd June @ Rothes Hall, Glenrothes
Yes it's in Glenrothes, yes it's a musical, so what the hell are we doing going to this? Well I've been following the fortunes of this show since it was first planned by Mark and the folks over at the Scottish Theatre Forum and I need to see it through to the end. I'm even hopeful that my attachment to the people involved and general appreciation of "Queen" may even make up for my general dislike of musicals. Although I am concerned that if I let on I enjoy it Waldorf will be dragging me to God knows what the week after! If you've wanted to see this but couldn't make a trip to London this is your chance, and from what I've heard the cast will be excellent. Anyway, just this once, and seeing as the production is for charity... (click on the image to enlarge it) Review now posted

His Dark Materials, Scottish Youth Theatre - 25th July tp 4th August @ Citizens Theatre
Likely to be at the Citizens at the start of August, this will be first Scottish production of the two part play based on Philip Pullman's hit trilogy of books. The original National Theatre production is legendary and this is a hugely ambitious choice for SYTs Summer Festival. It has been a few years since we saw the SYT "main stage" production but this looks like being unmissable. Just remember it's in 2 parts so remember to book for both! Part I review posted.
Part II review now posted.

The Ballad of James II - Nonsenseroom, 2nd to 25th August @ Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" was the highlight of our Edinburgh Festival picks in 2006, so we're delighted to have this scheduled as the first of our 2007 Edinburgh Festival shows. Well worth considering paying more for the "Special Perfomances" which include a post-show light buffet, Q&A session and a guided tour of the chapel. (Review now posted)

We've currently got 16 shows booked up for the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007. It's more "what we'll be seeing" than "what to see" but you can read our Fringe Previews and a bit about each of teh shows we have chosen - 11 shows in Part 1, and a further 5 in Part 2.

The Bacchae - National Theatre of Scotland, August @ Kings in Edinburgh & Theatre Royal in Glasgow
After a two year absence from the Kings/Theatre Royal in Glasgow for the reasons outlined in "Are You Positive" we've finally found a production that we couldn't let pass us by. With some of the creative team from "Black Watch" and Alan Cumming in the lead role it definitely falls into the category of unmissable. (Review now posted)

It's A Wonderful Life - Nonsenseroom, December @ Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin
"The Canterville Ghost" was last year's hugely enjoyable Christmas show and for 2007 Nonsenseroom are reviving one of their previous productions due to popular demand. A truly wonderful alternative to panto, but wrap up warm and take a blanket!


Monday, April 02, 2007

BTB Shows (Before This Blog)

We started "View From The Stalls" in September 2006 and we pretty much covered the hows and whys in our "Welcome" post. We were also able to look back over the shows that we had seen earlier in 2006 and these reviews are labelled "Catch-up" and are often not quite as detailed as our more current reviews. But of course our theatregoing didn't begin in 2006, and we've always felt it a shame that some of the great productions we saw before 2006 don't get a mention, so with that in mind here is a quick run through of some of our personal highlights from yesteryear...

By rights we should start off with the Scottish Youth Theatre's production of "Sweeney Todd" in 2004 - seeing Katrina Innes in SYT's "When a Star Falls" was the prompt to finally write this up. This was an incredible production with spectacular performances by Innes as "Mrs Lovett" and Dougie Greig as "Sweeney Todd". Greig's performance was intense and convincingly evil while Innes showed a real talent for the comedic elements of her role, and they both delivered memorable vocals. They had great support from a very able supporting cast but Greig and Innes produced performances that remain to this day the best I have seen in the Citz Circle Studio.

"Sweeney Todd" wasn't our first time at an SYT performance, and of course it wasn't our last. Many years before we had seen their musicals "John Paul Jones" and "Into the Woods" which were very enjoyable but too far back to comment on in detail, however in 2005 we were back in the Citz Circle Studio for their devised show "The Ugly Duckling". I honestly couldn't begin to describe the plot of this show based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson intermingled with his own life story but it was great, great fun and gave all of the cast their moment to shine including an Elvis-style "There once was an ugly duckling..." and a performance of "Beautiful" that means we can never hear Christina Aguilera's version the same way again. It truly was a joy to watch.

Going a little further back I have great memories of seeing Imogen Stubbs in the lead role of Shaw's "St Joan" which has always been a favourite play of mine. Stubbs was excellent but my main memories of the show are of the brilliant use of lighting and a minimal set.

The memories get a little thin after that but include a great version of "A Clockwork Orange" at the Tron around 1991/92, and an early experience of promenading performances with "John Brown's Body" at the Tramway. I also have the pleasure of many years of memories of a couple of true Scottish greats - Rikki Fulton & Stanley Baxter in pantomime at the Kings.

There have of course been disappointing theatre trips over the years, some of which Waldorf has already highlighted in the recent "Are you positive?" piece on why our reviews tend to be favourable. Fortunately it seems that many of the less enjoyable ones fall into the "truly forgettable" category.

Our reviews and other posts are always open to comment but in particular with this one I'd encourage those of you reading to have a think about some of the special memories you have of theatre over the years, and maybe consider sharing one or two of them with us...