Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us" - November 2008

In the final play of the National Theatre of Scotland & Traverse's 'Debuts' season Paul Higgins has successfully created three fully rounded and engaging characters who have brought to life by three strong performances. The problem is, 'Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us' is a play with five characters - and the final two drain the play of much of the strength it would otherwise have had.

John Wark plays younger brother Patrick who has surprised the family by returning home from Seminary a week earlier than expected. It's a well pitched performance which effectively conveys both his character's intelligence and his ignorance of life in the real world. On his return he finds older brother Johnny (Ryan Fletcher) caught up in some bother and desperately trying to raise some cash in a hurry. Fletcher plays Johnny with just the right level of gallusness but with the underlying knowledge that his life is a disappointment. Higgins, Wark & Fletcher have created a believable dynamic between these two and it's responsible for many of the plays strongest moments. As sister Cath, Carmen Pieraccini shines brightest when she is alone, particularly in a delightful scene in candlelight, and throughout the play genuinely inhabits the body of someone with a painful skin irritation.

Unfortunately the depiction of the adult characters fails to match the high standard of the children. Susan Vidler's 'Mum' makes little impact and I found it difficult to envisage her as part of this family set-up. But for me the real problem lay with Gary Lewis's alcoholic 'Dad' who is a fraction too close to Rab C Nesbitt to be taken as seriously as the character should be - particularly once he utters a line dangerously close to Rab's catchphrase. As a result I'm concerned that many of the laughs that the performance generated in the audience were simply of the lets-laugh-at-the-west-coast-scum variety.

Now I have to be fair here and admit that we deprived ourselves of what could have been one of the play's most powerful scenes. We were struggling with the play so much by the interval that leaving was a genuine possibility, so script book in hand I flicked to near the end to decide if it was worth staying for. Sufficiently intrigued we stayed - but we had been spoiled for a revelation that was handled rather nicely.

Even John Tiffany's direction is frustrating with characters spending considerable periods of time in static positions - and as this is staged in the round it leaves sections of the audience seeing the back of character's heads for far too long.

But there are moments that show that Higgins has significant potential as a writer. The relationships between the three younger characters are thoroughly convincing and there are some interesting ideas in the play - the concept of good deeds as currency and the way the family look down on the inhabitants of nearby Stonebridge provided something worth further thought.

Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us runs at the Traverse until Saturday 29th November
Image by Pete Dibdin used with permission.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

"4.48 Psychosis" - October 2008 (revisited)

We originally posted very brief thoughts about SweetScar, Tramway and "Cumbernauld Theatre's production of "4.48 Psychosis" back when we saw it at Cumbernauld Theatre at the end of October. As part of the impact of the production was the journey into the unknown we didn't want to lessen that by being too detailed in our comments. Hence we've delayed publishing this until its run finished, and as a result we're also going into a bit more detail than usual.

The first surprise of the evening was that instead of entering through the usual main doors of the theatre we were taken into its bowels in small groups, past the costumes for their upcoming panto and backstage. Where we were led into a pitch dark theatre by ushers wearing night vision goggles. We were then seated individually, and in splendid isolation with at least two seats between you and any other audience member. All the while the sounds of a streetscape assault your senses. Traffic passing, children laughing and playing, birds chirping. You struggled to get your eyes to adjust to the darkness but it was largely impenetrable, and your imagination started to play tricks as you tried and failed to rationalise the very indistinct shapes you (think) you could make out. Even when the performance started the lights came up only for brief periods and it took you time to completely piece together what you're seeing.

Sarah Kane's last work wasn't produced until after her death, and the script gives directors complete carte blanche as there are no character names just lines of dialogue that can be allocated completely freely to the undetermined number of cast members. Director Adrian Osmond cut through this potential tangle by having only one cast member visible on stage - Keith Macpherson. And even then the dialogue actually spoken by him is limited to a few lines near the very end. Instead a host of disembodied voices represent the hundreds of individuals who are affected by mental health issues or are involved in their treatment. The speakers were positioned so close to you that you were enveloped by the sound. I even had to double check that it was actually a recording and not someone standing over your shoulder.

Staged in the round you felt like a voyeur as the set is the studwork of a room which goes from completely minimalist to semi-furnished is some hugely impressive transitions performed again in complete blackness in which furniture and other items appear and disappear in very short periods of time. The technical team of Kirsty Mackay (Designer), Kenny MacLeod (Sound Designer) and Kai Fischer (Lighting Designer) have shown here how simple and well thought out design elements can elevate a production.

Although technically polished your full focus was on Macpherson's performance as he conveys a variety of emotions and frustrations in an incredibly vulnerable, physical and exposed performance. He becomes the physical representation of every one of the disparate voices you hear, whilst remaining an individual whose journey you follow to its end. It's a journey both in time, and through the progression of his mental illness. In an hour of theatre I don't think I've ever felt so exhausted simply watching. Osmond has produced an intense, and emotionally draining experience.

Sarah Kane's own personal experiences with the mental health system obviously influenced her writing, and her negative experiences of it as a patient are evident. However one of the most powerful parts for me was the disembodied voice of a young psychiatrist simply reading out the case notes of a patient she knew the system was failing.

A beautifully constructed production.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

"Heer Ranjha (Retold)" - November 2008

Ankur Productions have relocated a classic Punjabi folk tale to modern day Glasgow with a mix of Bollywood glamour, local patter and bags of style. Rather than a haphazard attempt to outline the tale, I think I'm safe enough in saying that it's a typical girl-meets-boy, family-don't-approve type scenario with added religious complications.

Despite impressive performances from Nalini Chetty as socialite Heer and Taqi Nazeer as the troubled Ranjha I found it difficult to buy into the early stages of the relationship, but once they are a couple I became suitably convinced. Indeed, the production is full of terrific performances with Amerjit Deu and Michael D'Cruze as Heer's father and uncle being highlights.

Shan Khan's script has plenty of humour but also addresses some of the issues facing Glasgow's increasingly multicultural young people and the generational divide found all communities. He and the cast also manage to create peripheral characters that ring true to the extent that you actually feel they exist outwith their contribution to Heer & Ranjha's tale.

The movement set pieces are incredibly well put together - the 'dust up' kitchen scene is quite a spectacle, Heer & Ranjha's 'dance' against the wall is stunningly beautiful, and the large scale dance sequences are impressive (helped by some wonderful costumes and music).

But there are problems with the production, some significant. While it didn't feel over long, it often felt slow - in part due to scene changes where any sense of urgency seemed entirely lacking but there also just seemed to be a general lack of tempo for the dialogue scenes. And while there's plenty of energy and passion displayed on stage it never seemed to break down the barriers and infect the audience to the extent that feet were tapping or heads nodding. That's partly due to the extensive width and depth of the stage area at the Tramway which combined with the rather sparse set results in a clinical feeling and keeps the audience one removed from the characters. I'm not sure how flexible the space at the Tramway is but if they could have staged this in-the-round I think it would have drawn the audience in to a much greater extent.

The production doesn't quite reach the heights it has the potential to, but it's certainly an entertaining piece of theatre with some magical moments. And unlike the similar tale of 'Romeo & Juliet' it didn't have me thinking 'Oh, get on with it and die already...'

Heer Ranjha (retold) runs at the Tramway until Sat 29th November
Image by Tim Morozzo used with permission


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Under My Skin" - November 2008

My visits to Oran Mor's "A Play, A Pie & A Pint" Autumn season haven't been as frequent as I would have liked, but of all the short blurbs they provide about the shows this was the one that had most grabbed my attention back in September - so I wasn't going to miss it. Written by Ali Muriel this co-production between Oran Mor and Paines Plough is set in a Glasgow morgue where a young medic is about to perform an illegal autopsy under duress - as a police officer with a vested interest looks on.

I can't remember the last time I was so simultaneously impressed and disappointed by a play. One one hand the scenes between the policeman and the rather animated corpse are brilliantly written and performed by John Kazek and Gabriel Quigley - producing some powerful moments and a surprisingly beautiful final scene. But the scenes between Kazek's Inspector and Martin McCormick's medic were a real let down for me, and I don't feel the acting was at fault. They appear to be written and directed to be played for laughs, but it's so over the top that it diminishes the impact of the scenes with Quigley's Shona. Had the bullied young medic character been replaced with an older doctor willingly helping out the Inspector as a favour then I think this might have been one of the most moving pieces I've seen this year. As it stands it's too uneven in tone to deliver the substantial blow to the gut that it has the potential to do.

I'm also not really convinced by the use of the 'haunting' music, but Muriel certainly deserves to be praised for giving an impressively accurate account of the forensic investigation of death by hanging, yet making the procedures sufficiently accessible for the audience to follow.

For those like me with a low tolerance for heavy handed humour the whole may prove unsatisfactory, but its moments of brilliance may haunt the memory of those who see it.

Under My Skin runs at Oran Mor until Saturday 25th November
Image by Leslie Black used with permission


Sunday, November 16, 2008

"The Dogstone" / "Nasty, Brutish & Short" - November 2008

The second event in the National Theatre of Scotland's 'Debuts' season at the Traverse is a double bill of new plays directed by Dominic Hill. There's nothing like a fun night out at the theatre... and this is certainly nothing like a fun night out at the theatre...

Kenny Lindsay's "The Dogstone" is a two hander told in flashback comprising scenes that take place over a period of years between alcoholic father Danskin (Andy Gray) and his son Lorn (Scott Fletcher). Known for his comic performances, Gray may be seen as a surprise choice for the role, but after seeing glimpses of it in previous performances we've been very keen to see him in a darker role - and it was worth the wait. He's entirely convincing in the many elements of the character - doting father, unpleasant dunk and pathetic human being. And while Fletcher may be a newcomer to most, his assured performance came as no surprise to us having highlighted his potential in his student performances of 'Teechers' and 'The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet' in recent years. But I don't think even we expected to see him in such a commanding role on the Traverse main stage quite so soon. Yet he appears to be absolutely in his element here portraying the character between the ages of 8 and 17 and is impressively engaging when addressing the audience directly as the older Lorn.

However, despite the strong performances I'm not entirely convinced by the play. It just lacks a reason to exist - it's simply too bleak to offer much entertainment and offers little in the way of wider message. I'd be perfectly happy to read it in a collection of short stories but attending the theatre requires more effort on my part, and the reward here simply isn't enough - even as part of a double bill.

Which brings us to "Nasty, Brutish and Short" by Andy Duffy centering on troubled teenage couple Luke and Mary Jane (James Young & Ashley Smith) and Luke's older brother Jim (Martin Docherty). Like "The Dogstone" while the cast do well in bringing its intensity to life it's just not got a great deal to say for itself and seems to want to be unpleasant for the sake of being unpleasant. And it's hampered by a soundscape that's more irritating than anything else and a completely pointless and distracting set that leaves the cast performing in three inches of water. There are also a number of references that seemed so incongruous to the characters that I found myself frowning at them as I watched (Liberace, Schrodinger & Rod Stewart). Sadly there's just nothing here that you can't get from reading the papers or watching the news.

The Dogstone / Nasty, Brutish and Short have now completed their runs.
Image by Pete Dibdin used with permission.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

"The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer" - November 2008

Having missed this earlier in the year when it premiered at Oran Mor we were pleased to see it picked up by Retrograde for a short run at the Tron. Set in Glasgow's Merchant City in 1780, as told by the titular character Enoch Dalmellington, the tale takes place literally yards from the theatre - which adds something a little special to the piece.

Benny Young takes over the role in the revival of this one man show, and having enjoyed his performances recently in 'The Drawer Boy' and 'Six Acts of Love' we had high hopes for the evening. But while Young's characterisation as he inhabits the many participants in his tale is excellent, I'm afraid there were just too many stumbled lines to overlook - even for a first night performance (although not a Preview). Add in an unfortunate, but deftly handled, on-stage spillage and Mr Young was not having a good night - and his appearance at the curtain call suggested he had enjoyed the evening much less than the audience had. For despite its flaws this remained an enjoyable evening that was well received in the packed auditorium.

Ian Heggie's play is an amusing but slight piece of theatre that benefits from pushing the buttons of the local audience - much like watching 'Taggart' to spot the filming locations. And I have mixed feelings about one of the play's devices - the pronouncements of the local fortune teller on what lies in store for Glasgow of the future (our present). On one hand it's certainly effective at generating the laughs but it's just too easy - the scriptwriter's equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, and seems distinctly tagged on to the main plot. Although quite how these elements will go down when the show plays at Edinburgh's Traverse in December I'm not at all sure.

The other problem I have with the play is seemingly trivial but hugely significant - the name given to the Dalmellington's daughter who causes him so much fretting. Early on in the piece the character's deadpan delivery and morose disposition will evoke memories to those of a certain age of the late great Rikki Fulton's 'Reverend I M Jolly'. Naming the daughter 'Euphemia' (Jolly's wife's name) makes the comparisons inevitable, and while they can be sustained for a few minutes, over the course of an hour it can only compare unfavourably.

An entertaining enough evening but not one that will be featuring in our end of year highlights.

The Tobacco Merchant's Lawyer runs at the Tron until Saturday 15th November and at the Traverse from 11th to 13th December.


Monday, November 10, 2008

"Midsummer [A Play With Songs]" - November 2008

Traverse Theatre Company's "Midsummer [A Play With Songs]" is not a musical, let's get that out of the way right at the beginning. It's not. No I'm actually not being facetious. It does what it says on the tin; it's 'a play with songs'. David Greig and Gordon McIntyre have meshed together theatre with music in an almost cinematic way - the music forms part of the soundtrack of the story. It's not just an incidental but integral part of it but without the full on inate ridiculousness of a song and dance extravaganza.

A story of a chance encounter between Helena (Cora Bissett) and Bob (Matthew Pidgeon), and the resulting weekend spanning Midsummer 2008 in Edinburgh (although possibly an Edinburgh in a parallel universe as 24th June is a Saturday, not a Tuesday, in this one). Chock full of references to the city that is its setting we Weegies probably only got half of, however at no point did we feel like we were sitting in the middle of a private joke.

The story of Helen and Bob, and the characters that weave in and out of their weekend is filled with joy, absurdity and heartache. The fourth wall doesn't so much as come down, but is non-existant from the start as the audience becomes confidante to both characters. The interaction between those on stage and those watching is as important as what is happening to the two protaganists. With some lovely set pieces you're drawn into the tale that's unfolding in front of you. An ingenious set designed by Georgia McGuiness completes this visual feast. The devil is in the detail, with a programme that's supplied with a random vinyl record (ours was Don't Make My Brown Eyes Blue by Crystal Gayle), a code to download a couple of the songs from the show and a link to Medium Bob's Flikr Photostream. The only thing missing was one of Traverse's ubiquitous script books.

In an hour and 45 minutes Bissett and Pidgeon produce two excellent performances in demanding roles that require a huge amount of physical acting and the ability to sing and play guitar. Their performances and a clever script charm you into liking two people who with all their flaws you really shouldn't. I came out grinning, and will look back on the show with a warm glow similar to what "Venus As A Boy", "Molly Sweeney" and"Amada" have left.

Photo by Douglas Robertson. Used with permission.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

"Zero" - November 2008

Theatre Absolute & Warwick Arts Centre have come together to bring "Zero" by Chris O'Connell to the Citizens Circle Studio. Set in 2028 it takes place in Camp Zero - a detention centre for the interrogation of 'The Others' - perceived threats to the Global Economic Alliance. While the play does ask us to consider the ethical implications of torture, its real core is the impact that witnessing it has on camp translator Alex.

O'Connell's decision to move the setting on from the present day is a clever one. There is nothing here that could be called futuristic and the issues are very much of the present. But he enables us to jettison the baggage of our current conflicts and the simplicity of the fictional conflict provides little distraction.

As Alex, Stephen Hudson delivers a phenomenal performance as we see him deteriorate from someone very much in control to a man on the brink. Not an uncommon event in theatre, but what makes his performance so extraordinary is that O'Connell's script and Matt Aston's direction calls for scenes in different timeframes to be quickly intercut. Daniel Hoffman-Gill as army grunt Tom also handles the demands of the script well, although the character's journey is perhaps not so far as Alex's. It's largely the relationship between these two characters and the performances of the two actors that make the play work so well.

O'Connell's use of language is impressive including powerful moments when detainees are read their non-rights. There are also a number of effective set piece moments in here - particularly the DVD messages home and the impressively portrayed scenes where Demissie (Damian Lynch) is interrogated. But there are other aspects that didn't quite work for me such as the relationship between interrogator Helen and the commander (despite good performances from Kate Ambler & Adeel Akhtar).

As an 'issue' play it doesn't attempt to offer any answers, or even ask any new questions, but as a character study this is a forceful piece of theatre.

Zero has finished it's run at the Citz but moves on to the Tristan Bates Theatre in London from 11th to 29th November
Image by Andrew Moore used with permission


Monday, November 03, 2008

"Something Wicked This Way Comes" - November 2008

The National Theatre of Scotland and Catherine Wheels have come together to produce Ray Bradbury's adaptation of his own novel, and with some very strong press reviews and an audience response at the curtain call to match, you'd expect to be reading a very positive post from us. I certainly expected to be writing one. But I'm genuinely sorry to report that this left us cold.

We had significant difficulties engaging with the show. It's. Just. So. Dreadfully. Slow. Elements which take up a good deal of stage time (such as the Lightning Rod Salesman and Most Beautiful Woman in the World) may be significant in the novel but here the pay-offs simply don't justify the time spent on them. Yet, unless I blinked and missed it the fate of Will's mother was never resolved but the boys seem to run happily home without further thought.

The other major difficulty is caused by the 'oversize' casting of the two young characters of Jim & Will (Patrick Mulvey & Michael Gray). By going with performers so far beyond the (almost) 14 years of the characters, combined with the wholesome fifties dialogue it's difficult not to find oneself thinking in terms of the Comic Strip's "Five Go Mad in Dorset". It just made it too hard to suspend disbelief in a coming-of-age story.

Further flaws include the failure to even attempt to reduce the visibility of the harness for the admittedly impressive aerial work by Jennifer Paterson; having the equally impressive Jonothan Campbell acting as counterbalance in full view of the audience at the side of the set (fascinating but hugely distracting); a closing song that seems dreadfully out of place; and live musicians that may as well have been recorded.

To be fair it did a very impressive job of keeping the attention of the large number of young people in the audience. Waldorf feels we needed to channel our inner child and then perhaps it would have worked better for us, but I'm not convinced. However, there are elements that worked - even for us. Andrew Clark gives a suitably Dark and dangerous performance while Graham Kent impresses as Will's father, as does Antony Eden as Cooger. The video/projection elements are wonderfully done and the carousel and mirror maze scenes are striking.

But, what do we know... the closest feeling I have had to seeing this show was our disappointment at "Peer Gynt" - which went on to win numerous awards.

Something Wicked This Way Comes has now completed its run.
Image by Douglas McBride used with permission.