Saturday, December 29, 2007

Review of the Year - 2007

It's that time of year again when we look back over all the shows we've seen in 2007 (seventy of them in total) and pick out a few of the highlights. We wouldn't dream of claiming to name the best of the year - just our own personal favourites. As with last year, categories will be made up as we go along... Waldorf has added her comments in italics...

For my favourite professional male performance it's hard to look beyond Alan Cumming in "The Bacchae" who managed to truly capture the audience. As a result it left the show unbalanced and lacking when he was off stage, but I doubt I'll see a more commanding performance in terms of sheer stage presence. But I don't think it was the most impressive male performance I saw this year - that belongs to Tom Smith for his roles as the Writer & Sergeant in "Black Watch". His portrayal of each of the two characters was so entirely convincing I had no idea it was the same actor playing both roles - I even refused to believe it when told after the show until I was shown it printed in the programme. He really didn't - it was highly amusing. Male nudity seems to have played a large part in our theatre going this year, from Alan Cumming's buttocks to Rebus McTaggart's Sharon Stone impression.

There have been a number of very strong female professional performances that come to mind from this year with Cara Kelly as the captivating "Molly Sweeney" and Eleanor Buchan as the spritely waitress in "Your Ex Lover is Dead" right up there. However it's Denise Hoey's remarkable lead performance in "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" that still resonates several months later - and of course we also loved her as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz".

We caught several youth and student shows again this year and saw a number of excellent performances with particular highlights being David McNay as The Magistrate in GCNS's "Lysistrata" who made us long to see what he could do in "Rocky Horror" and Kirstie Steele's performance as Lyra in SYTs "His Dark Materials - Part I" which almost rescued a problematic show.

We also ventured into the world of amateur theatre and were hugely impressed by the high standard of performances. In particular Kim Shepherd was a revelation as Scaramouche in STF's production of "We Will Rock You" with fantastic vocals and brilliant comic acting. It was a performance that would have been worthy of a mention with the professionals noted above. Similarly, Tom Beattie's role as the father in "Ice Cream Dreams" was a perfectly pitched performance giving three dimensions to the sadness, humour and failings of his character.

My thoughts for my favourite newly created/devised production come down to two shows that really stand out. The much missed NTS Young Company's "The Recovery Position" was a stunning site specific piece while Deborah Pearson's "Your Ex Lover is Dead" was immensely entertaining while also giving the audience something to think about.

My favourite performance of an existing or adapted work has three really strong candidates. Glasgow College of Nautical Studies "Lysistrata" was an absolute joy from start to finish; The Citizens/NTS "Molly Sweeney" featured incredibly involving performances from it's strong cast; and Lauder Studio Theatre's production of the play version of "Blood Brothers" showed what a committed cast and clever direction can bring to a show.

You may have noticed the glaring absence of "Black Watch" from the last two categories - I just couldn't make up my mind which it belonged in, so I figured I'd just mention it separately - as just about the whole planet is aware by now, Black Watch is in a class of it's own, whichever category you choose to place it in. It's going to be in London in 2008, and revisits Scotland - well worth going to see and we're hoping to go again see it again.

Our visit to London this year earns Trafalgar Studios the award for most uncomfortable theatre. I'm not sure whether the air conditioning was broken or the heating jammed on full but it was like sitting in a sauna. Statler blames the rather spicy Thai curry I'd had beforehand, but I wasn't the only one waving the programme as a fan. However "Elling" made up for the discomfort. A close runner up is The Citizens' Circle Studio, which despite putting on some great shows can never be accused of being comfy - my legs are just too short. I thought the Trafalgar Studios was just fine, and as for 'problem' theatres - nothing beats the irritation factor of the creaky seats in Glasgow's Kings Theatre.

Making up 21 of our shows this year, the Edinburgh Festival deserves a comment on it's own. As already mentioned, "Blood Brothers" was a highlight, along with "Mehndi Night", "James II" and the painfully funny "Rebus McTaggart". The black comedy musical "Failed States" was a last minute addition for us but well worth it and "Venus As A Boy" showed how powerful a one man (and his musician) show can be.

For sheer spectacle of set design "The Bacchae" with its poppies descending from heavens and it's attempt to incinerate the front of the stalls has no competition. However clever set design isn't all about blowing the budget, and both "The Ballad of James II" and "The Soldier's Tale" showed what can be done simply and cleverly. Fair point about simplicity, but for me Killer Joe's incredible full size realisation of a trailer can't be beaten.

What strikes me as I look back over the year is the power individual scenes and moments in a production can have, staying with you long after the show. Denise Hoey's "Goldfinger" in "Little Voice" and Kirstin McLean flying off through an opening roof in "The Recovery Position". This was a huge highlight for me, and was a magical idea. The unexpected rendition of "Give Peace a Chance" in "Lysistrata", the entrance of the dog in "The Butler Did It?!" and the unrestrained violence of "Blood Brothers". Not forgetting the genuinely perilous swordfight in "James II" ranging around the Chapel. And then there was "The Soldier's Tale" wedding scene which left me grinning from ear to ear. Truly unforgettable moments - exactly what makes theatre so great.

Well that was 2007, and we'll shortly be posting our plans for early 2008 - and it's already looking good!


Friday, December 28, 2007

"The Wizard of Oz" - December 2007

Although we've seen a number of shows in Edinburgh this year, it's still a bit of an effort and "The Wizard of Oz" at the Lyceum was very much borderline when we drew up our winter schedule back in August. But that changed when we heard one vital piece of information - that Denise Hoey, whose performance as Little Voice had been one of the highlights of our year, had been cast as Dorothy. Suddenly the show was transformed to one of our most anticipated shows - and that was before all the glowing reviews appeared in the press. But then again, we'd had recent experience of being burned by strong reviews.

But within two minutes of the start it's clear we've got nothing to worry about and are in for an absolute treat. The tone of the show is immediately established once Hoey's Dorothy appears with Toto (in the form of a well worked hand puppet) and it's very much an affectionate presentation of the original rather than a post-modern knowing take on it. There's plenty of humour and physicality, and the songs are lovingly performed by the strong cast. Although there were a few children whose attention wandered, mainly those who were too young to have been there, for the most part the show held the audience, young and old, in rapt attention.

Hoey of course brings her stunning vocals to the role, but as with Little Voice her acting is equally impressive, delivering a wonderful combination of charm, innocence and indignation.

It's a very strong cast all round with Matthew Pidgeon's Scarecrow/Hunk a particular favourite. But it's Julie Austin as the Wicked Witch/Miss Gultch who has the hardest task. After our trip to "Wicked" I wasn't sure I could ever look at the Wicked Witch in the same way again, but Austin almost had me booing and hissing with the rest of the audience.

The sets are stunning and the video projection used for a number of elements is the best use of video images I've come across. But while certainly magical, the show isn't quite perfect. The munchkins/Emerald City residents are from the Lyceum Youth Theatre and although their choreography was excellent the apparent use of backing tracks for some of the singing was a little jarring and certainly brought me 'out of the moment'. The only other scene that didn't quite work for me was the melting of the Witch - although the melting was very well portrayed the use of glitter to represent the bucket of water was disappointingly low tech - there must be a more creative way of doing this.

But none of that comes close to taking away from what is a wonderful piece of theatre, put together with fantastic production values and brought to life by a delightful cast. A shining example of what a Christmas show should be.

Image used with permission


Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Wicked Christmas 2" - December 2007

Due to a dash for winter sun last year we didn't manage to catch the Citizens Community Company's original "Wicked Christmas" but we had enjoyed February's "My Bloody Valentine" and their involvement in "Ice Cream Dreams". So while Waldorf headed off into the sun once again, I stayed behind to see "Wicked Christmas 2". And I'm really pleased I did.

The show has been put together by Dramaturg Peter Arnott weaving together nine short pieces written by members of the Community Company and he's allowed the individual tales to retain their own identities while setting an even tone for the piece as a whole. Director Neil Packham has also ensured that the cast all cope well with the Circle Studio's intimate in-the-round staging.

I'll pick out some of the highlights, but it's fair to say the performances were universally good, despite a wobble or two. The segments are all well written and for the most part the humour hits the mark, although as with any show with fast paced humour there are some that misfire.

The overarching plot sees Tom Beattie's Santa sending a badly behaved elf (Darren McGarvey) to Glasgow on Christmas Eve to learn about the spirit of Christmas. It's a device that works well, thanks to Beattie's entertaining portrayal of a cursing Santa and McGarvey's charismatic and confident performance.

One of the main threads of the show involves Janice (Kirsty McCarter) and Linda (Eleanor Capaldi) as they run a candle stall as part of their 'community service' under the (sometime) supervision of Mr Morgan (Alan Ward). It's a particularly well written series of scenes and all three performances are very strong.

Alan Ward returns later along with Martin O'Neill as a pair of young brothers being given the dreaded knitted jumpers for Christmas. It's wonderfully performed and the characterisation of the brothers is spot-on. O'Neill also puts in an excellent turn as a Taggart-esque detective later in the show.

Katya Silich and Sean Williamson make an amusing sight as they ice dance around the studio (yes really) but while their dialogue has some very funny moments others seem forced. Similarly Lesley Noonan and Jim McCleavy do well with some stilted dialogue, although the concept of a daughter facing a first Christmas without her mother is a good one.

But star turn of the evening belongs to Frances Rose Kelly and Anne Marie McLeod as a pair of Glasgow prostitutes walking the streets. So often these days strong language is overdone, but while extensive here, it's pitched perfectly and the scenes with these two move comfortably between hilarious banter and strong emotional moments.

The elements I've highlighted are simply the ones that held the most appeal for me - I'm sure other audience members will have had their own favourites. Overall, the Community Co has produced a very entertaining show with Glasgow very much at its heart, and tailored very much for its audience. We're already looking forward to seeing what they do in April along with the Citz Young Company in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"

Wicked Christmas 2 runs at the Citizens until Saturday 12th.


Sunday, December 09, 2007

"It's a Wonderful Life" - December 2007

Despite this only being our second year attending Nonsenseroom's Christmas show at Rosslyn Chapel, it has very much become part of our Christmas festivities. Nothing quite beats sitting huddled up on a bench wearing hats, scarves and a blanket across your lap to get you in the Christmas spirit. Or maybe it was the hugely enjoyable show (and the mulled wine).

Adapted from the much loved film by Frank Capra, Simon Beattie's "It's a Wonderful Life" stays as close to the film as is practical for an intimate in-the-round setting, and works equally well for those familiar and unfamiliar with the original. Told largely through flashback we find George Bailey on the verge of a suicide attempt being 'saved' by his guardian angel (second class) Clarence. Events from George's past are brought to life, followed by the revelations of how different the world would have been had he never been born.

While a 'Christmas show', this isn't really an alternative to pantomime in the way that "Peter Pan" is - it's more 'proper' theatre with a seasonal theme, and it would possibly struggle to keep the attention of young children. But much like the source material, for older children and adults it's an absolute joy. Okay, so it might be more gentle humour than laugh-out-loud, but looking around the audience the smiles were pretty constant throughout the whole show. It's quite simply a beautiful tale, beautifully told.

Director Bruce Strachan really has his cast of nine earning their money, rushing around the darkened chapel, playing multiple roles and performing lightning fast costume changes. While Fraser C Sivewright plays George Bailey straight down the middle in the first Act, he really comes into his own as we see George's life collapse in Act 2. Sivewright makes the descent from regret to despair all too believable and at times uncomfortably intense, while also managing to make his scenes with Clarence seem effortlessly comic. Susan Coyle is delightful as his wife Mary, transforming in front of the audience from young love to supportive mother of four (invisible) children.

Colin Scott-Moncrieff copes wonderfully with the herculean task of playing Clarence the Angel, Potter the villainous mogul of Bedford Falls, and George's brother Harry. It's an incredible performance - and he gives independent life to each role (so much so that Waldorf hadn't spotted he was playing Potter!)

Natalie Bennett's performance in Nonsenseroom's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was my favourite female performance of 2006, and although she doesn't get the same chance to shine here due to playing so many roles, it's still an impressive performance - particularly as George's mother. Neil Kent also does well in numerous roles while Amie Walker, Kerry Cleland, Ben Winger and Tom Holmes provide strong support. Productions that make use of strong accents risk shattering belief in the piece with every line, and it's something I'm often irritated by, but here the whole cast hold their accents well throughout. The show isn't quite flawless - the off stage voice of "Joseph" could be clearer and the first act lacks a little in humour - but it's pretty close.

There is one minor problem with the evening from the audience side of things that I'd like to address. With a limited audience due to the venue size, many wearing gloves, it's difficult for the audience to really show our appreciation by generating a volume of applause, but trust me, if you look at the smiles during the curtain calls and listen to the chatter afterwards you'll know how much the audience enjoyed it.

As always with Nonsenseroom's shows at Rosslyn Chapel we recommend catching one of their 'special performances' if possible. These include a light buffet, mulled wine and a tour of the chapel and really make the evening an experience to remember.

"It's a Wonderful Life" is on at Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin (near Edinburgh) on 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 18th & 19th December, with 'Special Performances' on 14th and 21st.

Nonsenseroom are also taking the show to Greenock Arts Guild on the 17th, Eastgate Theatre in Peebles on the 20th, and East Kilbride Arts Centre on the 22nd.

Photo used with permission.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

"Molly Sweeney" - December 2007

I was aware that the previous run of the show in 2005 by the Citizens Theatre Company had been very well received, but it still required a little persuasion to get me along, even with its new National Theatre of Scotland 'badge'. A show about the consequences when a woman who lost her sight shortly after birth attempts to have it restored just seemed so serious. Maybe I misread the marketing, or didn't pay enough attention to the reviews, but I was completely unprepared for the humour in this piece. Of course, Brian Friel's play is immensely emotional but it also has a light-hearted core that prevents the emotion overwhelming.

While there is no doubting the quality of the writing, the real joy from the piece comes from the performances. Cara Kelly as Molly, Michael Glenn Murphy as her husband Frank and Oengus MacNamara as her eye specialist, Mr Rice, absolutely commanded the Citizens Circle Studio. With seats on all four sides we've seen many performers find it difficult to play to all sections of the audience, but there were no such problems tonight. Not only do Kelly, Murphy and MacNamara constantly play to all sides, they play to every single audience member individually, making regular direct eye contact throughout. It's stunningly effective at drawing the audience in and I don't think I've ever seen the space handled so naturally and with such confidence - their moments of interaction with the audience are beautifully dealt with.

Combined they are quite possibly the most impressive cast we've come across this year. Kelly makes Molly utterly charming and we are quickly emotionally invested in the character, while Murphy succeeds in making Frank sufficiently good hearted and sympathetic that we can't really hold him accountable for what follows. MacNamara manages to portray Rice's flaws and complexity to great effect, absolving him from much of the blame. And therein lies the tragedy of the piece.

Add some wonderful lighting, smart direction and stimulating set design and you really have a production that is a bit special, and despite the subject matter it's one of the most enjoyable nights I've spent in the theatre this year.

Molly Sweeney continues at the Citizens until 8th December and then finishes its tour at the Traverse in Edinburgh 12th to 15th December.

Image by Richard Campbell, used with permission.


Saturday, December 01, 2007

"Peter Pan" - December 2007

No wasting time here at View From The Stalls - 1st day of December and we're opening the advent calendar, sorting Christmas shopping, and off to see the first of our four Christmas shows this month. "Peter Pan" at the Citizens seemed a good place to start and had the promise of Andrew Clark as Hook (who impressed us as Hamlet.)

Clark duly delivered, and was a suitably villainous nemesis for Peter and managed to elicit spontaneous boos and hisses from the audience (possibly unexpectedly). Robbie Towns gave a very physical performance as Peter, while Helen Mallon's very Glaswegian Wendy provided much of the show's humour. But there were issues with the sound levels and the clarity of some of the dialogue - even in the middle of the stalls. Although this was the first night, it wasn't labeled as a preview, and I'd hope this is addressed as the run progresses.

In a show like this it's often not the performances that make or break it, and while I'd be reluctant to go so far as to call it disappointing, there were certainly a good number of missed opportunities. Much of it was slow paced, particularly in the first act and only really the scenes with Nana the dog (Finn Den Hertog) had the energy to really grab the audience. The energy levels pick up in the second act when Tinkerbell is revived with some audience participation, and it's a bit odd that this non-panto is at it's best when it strays towards pantomime territory. But the writing isn't sufficiently sharp, and the Glasgow references, which always go down well, were too few and far between.

There is much to like here with certain elements very well realised - Tinkerbell is marvellously portrayed as a sparkle of light and in a particularly nice segment is 'moved' from hand to hand between the Lost Boys. The moments when Wendy, Michael and the boys are captured by Hook work well in silhouette (although a little muffled), the 'fly by wire' is very well performed a number of times, and a rendition of "Flower of Scotland" brings much amusement. The set is also very effective.

But other aspects fall short. The Crocodile really didn't work for me, the fencing seemed a little on the tame side, and the 'explosion' was pretty pathetic, while the cannons that dropped from the side of the ship sat unused when they were crying out to fire confetti into the audience.

Waldorf is of the opinion that it suffered from not knowing what it wanted to be - show or pantomime and I'd probably agree. It doesn't have the belly laughs a panto can provide or the ability to capture the children in the audience with a stunningly enthralling story, and I guess I expected a little more from the Citz.

"Peter Pan" runs at the Citizens until 5th January.