Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Educating Agnes" - April 2008

Firstly, it's only fair to admit that farce isn't really my cup of tea. For the most part I tend to find it a poor substitute for clever writing and that it panders to over-the-top performances. In fact I can only really think of two examples of farce I enjoy - TV's "Fawlty Towers" and "Frasier". So how did we end up at "Educating Agnes" then, with it's clear markings of farce? Well, we felt cheated having missed out on "Volpone" last year by Theatre Babel and weren't going to miss out again. And yes, Liz Lochhead's version of Moliere's "School For Wives" was indeed largely a traditional farce but it was also... wonderful.

Although Lochhead's switching of dialogue between accents and her use of rhyme takes a few moments to get used to, it very quickly becomes all part of the fun and the cleverness of the language makes up for the simple situations. There is much humour to be found simply through the absurdity of a burst of modern slang in an otherwise genteel speech.

As Agnes, Anneika Rose has perhaps drawn the short straw - being pretty much the only straight role in the piece. As a result she is left out of much of the fun, but Rose successfully avoids making Agnes two dimensional. Lewis Howden and Maureen Carr are brilliantly comical as servants Alain and Georgette; John Kielty makes Horace believably charming and ignorant rather than just stupid, and Sean Scanlan puts in a fine performance as Chrysalde.

But there's no getting away from the fact that the show belongs to Kevin McMonagle as Arnolphe. It's a magical performance that always manages to stay just the right side of excess. Scenes and exchanges that on paper I would have cringed at the thought of are made to work beautifully and my only concern is that perhaps I shouldn't have been left feeling quite so much 'on his side'.

Graham McLaren's direction also played a large part in my enjoying of the show as he keeps the overall tone well short of 'panto' territory, although I would have liked to have seen (or at least heard) representations of a couple of the 'off stage' moments.

This was an immensely enjoyable evening that was rightfully very well received by the audience at the Citz.

"Educating Agnes" runs at the Citizens until 3rd May before visiting Perth and Oxford.
Image by Douglas McBride used with permission.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

It Could Be You!

One of the reasons behind starting this blog was to share the joy of going to the theatre. Recent experiences have been seriously reducing that joy for me, and it's not the performances that are responsible. It's you...

OK, perhaps not you personally. Or at least I hope not.

It's you madam, the one so enthralled in the performance you're bouncing in your seat like a 3 year old, and pointing out the wonders on stage to your companion.

Oh and it's you. Yes, you. I know you're not really interested in the show. Your chatting through most of the first act showed me that. So why did you come back after the interval. Take a leaf out of the Whingers book and just head straight to the bar. And shut up.

Oh and not to forget you, sir. Yes it's unfortunate that you've had to step out in the middle of the performance. You disturbed several people in our row, plus all the people behind us. Then you came back, and did the same again. Then you had to go out again. Then you came back again. I can't think of any rational excuse for this, especially in a show that's 1 hour 25 minutes straight through. It wasn't exactly Wagner's Ring Cycle.

Now anyone can have to leave during a show - I had to recently when the heat of a theatre threatened to render me unconscious. Even worse it was a studio performance so there was no subtle way of doing it. I didn't try and return during the first act and also made the choice not to risk disturbing the second act and waited outside for Statler. You have to have a little respect for the people around you and the actors on stage.

Oh yes, the couple in the back row of a theatre who were sharing their love - whilst the lights were up at the interval.

Oh and ladies - the lights are down, the actors are on stage. You're meant to watch and listen to them, not carry on your really interesting conversation.

I hope I'm just unlucky and all the sweetie rustlers, toilet visiters, over indulgers, chatters, fidgeters are only there when I am. But I don't think so - I think they're everywhere. Unfortunately front of house isn't. If people can't be trusted to police themselves then theatres must take responsibility.

There is a balance obviously. You don't want the ushering to become so intrusive that they become part of the problem. However if someone leaves during a performance it has to be made clear that they cannot return. If someone is causing a problem during the first act, then stop them coming back for the second. Maybe the polite people are partly to blame. We don't complain enough, we settle for glares and gripping the arm rest. Who knows what the people on stage think - in some of the venues they must be completely aware of what's going on in the audience.

Most theatres now announce about mobile phones - perhaps they need to make that list longer.

This isn't a new problem (see our 'Guide To Polite Theatre Going' from last year), but recent shows have been extraordinarily bad).


Saturday, April 26, 2008

"Yarn" - April 2008

There are few things that will persuade us to make the journey from Glasgow to Dundee on a Friday night but we weren't going to miss Grid Iron's latest site specific work in conjunction with Dundee Rep. 'Yarn' is staged in Dundee's Verdant Works - a Victorian jute factory turned industrial museum - and the production's 'thread' linking the many elements together is clothing.

"Yarn" asks us to consider the impact clothes have on us, the way we view them and the price we pay for them. The weave of the tales is pretty loose and at times the series of individual scenes seems a little too much like a showcase rather than a single piece of theatre. But this somewhat 'mix and match' philosophy allows them to cover a lot of ground and ensures there will be something for everyone. Some of the show's most powerful moments come from scenes where an individual shares a story relating to an item of clothing - Kevin Lennon's marvelously performed memories of his grandfather's coat, Itxaso Moreno's emotional reflection on clothes from her childhood, and Robert Paterson's wonderfully relaxed and engaging tale of his scarf. Other highlights include the insight we are given to the true cost of the clothing in an genuinely powerful scene making use of a puppet, and a look at the Three Fates with Hannah Donaldson, who is excellent throughout, being particularly effective as Lachesis. Martin McCormick and Alia Alzougbi also have an enchanting moment as a struggling writer and a rather impressively portrayed spider.

Although there are moments that didn't quite work for me. Although beautifully told and performed their version of Henry James' "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" made little impact and the 'wedding night' segment was a 30 second gag extended well beyond it's worth.

But any misses are quickly forgotten as we move outside for a stunning catwalk finale. Music and lighting combine to create the perfect atmosphere for this quick-change fashion show. There are definitely some 'eh????' moments in there but I suspect they may finally click for me in a day or two, and there is a glorious crossover moment between two 'characters' from legend and rhyme associated with spiders (another one of the threads running through the show).

Ben Harrison's direction, incredible technical team and well drilled ushers ensure the show goes off without a hitch and the constant shift in segments ensures the 90 minute run time flies past. Like "Roam" before it, "Yarn" is one of those rare productions which hits the balance between being entertaining and thought-provoking just right.

Yarn runs at Verdant Works in Dundee until May 3rd with shows at 7pm and 9.15pm.
Image by Douglas McBride used with permission


Thursday, April 24, 2008

"The Wasp Factory" - April 2008

Iain Banks' cult novel was always going to make for an 'interesting' production and with Malcolm Sutherland's adaptation Cumbernauld Theatre Company and The Tron have really made an effort to bring it alive. Choosing a piece with such a profile certainly appears to have created a buzz (Waldorf: groan!) and seems to have attracted a young audience. What's surprising is that Banks' tale turns out to be the least impressive aspect of the production.

His story of dysfunctional brothers Frank and Eric and their father (as told by Frank) is reduced to what amounts to an old school "Tales of the Unexpected" and I'm left a little puzzled as to quite how it achieved its cult status - maybe I'll need to make the effort and read the novel. But while the narrative may be a little underwhelming the direction and performances are anything but.

Nicola Jo Cully as Frank, Robbie Jack as Eric and Ian Sexon as their Father deliver three exceptional performances. Cully is frighteningly believable and grabs the audience from start to finish while Jack shows some wonderful comic talent - and despite being underwritten Sexon makes the relationship with Frank fully formed.

As for the tone of the production and Ed Robson's direction I think a warning is required. It's the kind of feel I love in a show - direct narration to audience, creative representations of events told in flashback and excellent use of props/stage design/music. From the opening scene I instantly had a grin on my face that rarely left throughout, although even at its funniest moments there was always an element of underlying tension. For a production based on a novel the 'feel' of it was actually very cinematic. This all really worked for me, but I'm aware that these aspects may well be less enthusiastically received by others - although it certainly got a positive response from tonight's audience. But I do have a few reservations about the show. Perhaps due to the novelty and freshness of the storytelling style starting to wear off it did seem a little overlong, the nudity was pretty pointless and the rabbit bombing scene went out with a bit of a whimper.

However, those are mere quibbles - this is a hugely entertaining show with a great cast and I'm sure it will be a big hit on its extensive tour.

The Wasp Factory runs at the Tron until 26th April then visits Stirling, Stornoway, Kendal. Bathgate, Stranraer, Kilmarnock, Cumbernauld, Dundee, Kirkcaldy, Inverness, St.Andrews, Falkirk, Edinburgh and finishes in Aberdeen on June 12th to 14th.

Image by Linda Graham used with permission


Saturday, April 12, 2008

"They Shoot Horses Don't They?" - April 2008

In a similar manner to last year's "Ice Cream Dreams" The Citizens' have put together a large scale, main stage production with a cast made up from one professional actor along with members of the Citzens' Community Company, the Citzens' YOUNG Co. and new recruits from charity Turning Point Scotland. As always, our thoughts treat the production the same as any other - no allowances are made for how those involved came to be on stage.

Based on Horace McCoy's novel and adapted by Ray Herman, "They Shoot Horses Don't They?" is set at a marathon dance contest in depression hit America between the wars. We meet a number of the competitors and watch as they fall by the wayside with their dreams of winning shattered. Despite attempts by the contest organisers to portray it as quality entertainment it soon becomes clear that those involved are participating out of desperation.

The play is well written and holds the attention, although the second act does drag a little. The sole professional actor George Drennan as organiser/MC 'Rocky' does an excellent job of controlling much of the action and brings out what humour there is in the piece. There are difficulties catching some of the dialogue from cast members but for the most part it was clear enough and all made an effective contribution to the show's well choreographed dance numbers. Some are more comfortable on stage than others and my own favourites included Barbara Ann Gray as Ruby and Neil McKellar as her really rather intimidating husband James; John MacNeil as Sailor; Alan Ward as Rollo and Semra McHale as Jackie - but all the cast do well in their roles.

Then we have three of our main characters, and for the show to succeed they have to work well. Debbie Findlay as Alice had a couple of moments that were a little quiet but she also has several very powerful moments and it's a very effective performance overall. John Speirs succeeds in making Robert's extreme actions seem almost acceptable and it's a performance that wouldn't have been out of place in any of the professional productions I've seen on the Citz main stage in the last year or two. Cindy Campbell goes even further and I think her performance as Gloria was as good as any I've seen up there for a long time. It's a powerfully emotional but controlled performance throughout and her final scene really hits home. Every line and movement is honed for maximum impact and it really delivers - one of the most genuinely haunting moments I've seen in theatre.

There are other aspects here deserving a mention - a stunning set by Neil Haynes well lit by Stuart Jenkins, and a great on stage band led by musical director Sally Clay. Congratulations also to director Neil Packham for getting such impressive performances from his cast and managing so many on stage at one time.

Due to the nature of the show it perhaps isn't one to 'enjoy' or even leave you feeling 'entertained' as such - and that's one of the few problems for the show. It's a mood killer and as a result no one's going to leave buzzing about how great it was, but I hope they all agree that it was certainly impressive.

"They Shoot Horses Don't They?" runs at the Citizens until Saturday 12th April with matinee and evening performances on the 12th.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

"An Advert for the Army" - April 2008

Oran Mor's 'A Play, A Pie and A Pint' season has put together a strong team for Kieran Lynn's "An Advert for the Army". Director D C Jackson is getting great reviews for his own play "The Wall", while each of the cast of three had impressed us in a previous show. Add in the premise of a filmmaker reluctantly making an army recruitment advert with a cast of two soldiers and I was really looking forward to this one.

Ryan Fletcher puts in an excellent performance as squaddie Barrett who has been press ganged into appearing in the advert. Only last week I'd commented to Waldorf that I'd missed Fletcher's performance in "Black Watch" when we'd seen it second time around, so it was a nice surprise to see him back in uniform. Fletcher has some of the play's best moments and is perfectly comfortable with both the comic and serious aspects of his role.

While I enjoyed Tam Dean Burn's portrayal of filmmaker Nils, the character is written for maximum amusement value and I'd have liked to have seen it toned down a little - there's enough humour in the dialogue and situation that the decision to make him a caricature American seemed unnecessary.

Carmen Pieraccini gives a fine performance as tough-talking soldier Sarah attempting to limit Nils' outlandish plans and ensure the role of female soldiers isn't misrepresented. Her portrayal of 'acting' is particularly effective and she sets up a wonderful dynamic with Fletcher's Barrett.

Taken as a whole it certainly made for an enjoyable lunchtime performance and provided plenty of laughs along the way, but I felt the tone of the writing was uneven and the structure problematic. The shift from out-and-out comedy to a more considered finale didn't completely work for me - largely because it lacked the courage to commit 100% to the switch and attempted to retain some of the comedy. It had very impressively silenced the audience and it would have been a great way to leave them - rather than go back for a couple more giggles. The structure doesn't help as the show reaches what feels like a natural end point, but then goes for one more scene. I understand why, as Fletcher's final speech as Barrett is a magnificent piece of writing and is brilliantly delivered - I just wish it could have been placed elsewhere.

As it stands "An Advert for the Army" works well and I doubt many in the audience will leave less than happy, but I hope this isn't the end for the play. There's enough here that with a little more polish it could become something that deserves a wider audience.

'An Advert for the Army' runs at Oran Mor until Saturday 12th April
Image by Leslie Black used with permission


Saturday, April 05, 2008

"Shining City" - April 2008

Over the last few years Rapture have really impressed us both with their productions such as Frozen and The Collection, and the efforts they make to build relationships with their audience. So despite being unimpressed by our previous encounter with Conor McPherson's writing in St. Nicholas we were keen to see Shining City - so much so we went all the way to Paisley Arts Centre.

Set in Dublin, it's largely the tale of a psychotherapist and his grief stricken and guilt ridden client, John. Unfortunately the play just didn't engage me a great deal even with the best efforts of Michael Glenn Murphy as John. Despite the setting and a lively start with a Mike Scott soundtrack, McPherson's writing suffers from a severe lack of craic. Endless repetition of "you know" punctuated by expletives is a poor substitute for sharp and clever dialogue. Only occasionally is John written with enough humour to raise more than a gentle smile, and the other characters never really move beyond being plot devices. As a result the play seems overlong - particularly in the first act and to be honest I was left feeling it would work better as a single act two-handed piece.

Rory Murray does well with limited material as psychotherapist Ian, as do Melanie MacHugh and David Walshe, but the show really belongs to Murphy. Rapture Artistic Director Michael Emans has a real knack for bringing in lead actors of the highest quality, and after a recent run in "Molly Sweeney" Murphy is certainly a man on form. He has a real stage presence and his performance gives the play a much needed lift.

This was an enjoyable enough evening and delivers an effective ending, but I think it would take more than our continuing faith in Rapture to get us along to another piece by Conor McPherson - he obviously just isn't to our taste. We will however be booking up for Rapture's next production as advertised in the programme - Harold Pinter's "Betrayal". But we'll be following them elsewhere for that - Paisley Arts Centre just isn't a very satisfactory venue. With limited foyer space, ushers seating people incorrectly and very limited leg room it's way down our list of venues to return to.

Shining City continues on tour to Irvine, Stranraer, Rutherglen, Moffat, Kilmarnock, Bathgate and then on to Greenwich.
Image used with permission


Thursday, April 03, 2008

Scottish Theatre Forum

Our friends over at the Scottish Theatre Forum are undergoing a bit of a recruitment drive at the moment and we'd like to help out by sending a few of you in their direction. The STF is a fantastic resource for those involved in amateur and professional theatre, or those of us who just like to watch. And they also know how to put on damn fine show, so have a look at their poster (click it to enlarge) and then pop over for a look around.