Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Review of the Year - 2008

It's reached that time of year again where we look back on what we've enjoyed, and with over 100 productions to choose from we shouldn't be short of a few highlights...

Back in May we really enjoyed "The Drawer Boy" but I commented that 'by next week it will probably be a vague memory of having had an enjoyable night at the theatre' - yet I was completely wrong and months later it is still vivid in my memory. Beautifully written and directed I think it was probably my favourite play of the year - Brian Pettifer, Benny Young and Brian Ferguson were simply phenomenal and delivered three of the best male performances we saw this year.

Other male acting highlights included the masterful Will Lyman in "The Patriot Act" and Stephen Hudson's breathtaking performance in "Zero".

Another show that made a big impression early in the year was Borderline's production of D C Jackson's "The Wall" - a beautifully observed comedy of teenage angst. It also gave us one of the best female performances of the year from Kirstin McLean.

Indira Varma's performance in "Twelfth Night" was another highlight - as was Cora Bissett in the delightful"Midsummer [A Play with Songs]" which proved to be our most out-and-out enjoyable show this year.

But many of this year's high points can't exactly be called 'enjoyable' due to their content. Sweetscar's production of Sarah Kane's "4.48 Psychosis" was an unforgettable experience and Waldorf raved about "Deep Cut" for which I couldn't get a ticket. But I only have myself to blame for missing another show which she considers to be her favourite show of the year - "Amada".

There have been many shows that contained moments of theatrical magic that will be burned into our memories for years to come - the final moments of "Restitution", the 'Munchkin Strike' segment of "Wicked Christmas 3" and the incredibly powerful moments in "The Caravan". We've also been left with very fond memories of "Sunshine on Leith", "Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off" and "Heer Ranjha (Retold)".

But if we are talking about sheer entertainment value there isn't any doubt about my highlight of the year, and to be honest I'll consider myself hugely fortunate if I ever have more fun in a theatre than I did at "An Audience with Brian Blessed".

And yet, even as 2008 slips away, we've already got high hopes for 2009.


"Hamlet" - December 2008

It's been a couple of weeks since we didn't see David Tennant in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet (if you've been living on the moon he's got a bad back and any rumours that he went into hiding to avoid us are just pure speculation). So did a matryoshka doll-like cascade of understudies harm the production when it moved to the Ivor Novello Theatre?

Just to clear things up, so there's no confusion, Hamlet was played by Laertes, Laertes was played by Guildenstern, Guildenstern was played by Lucianus (the poisoner in the play) and Lucianus was played by Fortinbras. Hope that's nice and clear.

What we did get was a very polished production (literally in the case of the set) despite the re-arrangement of cast. Patrick Stewart as a very statesman like Claudius was magnificent and Edward Bennett stepping into Hamlet's jeans/tux (no doublets and hoses here) certainly didn't cause the production to be any less enjoyable. At his best when interacting with others as a slightly whiny brat; his verbal bullying of Polonius (Oliver Ford Davies) was a delight.

The interplay between Polonious, Ophelia (Mariah Gale) and Laertes (Tom Davey) as fatherly advice is dispensed was also wonderfully done. For the second time in two days I found myself laughing out loud at a production of Shakespeare.

In a tragedy it's obviously not all laughs. Penny Downie as Gertrude developed as the production went on from a rather unsympathetic woman who'd hurriedly re-married in order to maintain her position to a woman genuinely torn between her new husband, her son and her grief for the old.

Was it perfect - no probably not. The opening scene with the guards using the highly reflective floor to bounce their lights off to illuminate the faces of their compatriots instead of using the stage lighting should have worked well, but the constant switching between faces ended up just being irritating. The mirrored backdrop was put to particularly good effect in 2 scenes, although the latter of those was so nicely done that I did spend the next 15 minutes wondering quite how they'd done it, thus distracting me from the main event. But then I'm a geek at heart. However it did have the best use of a slinky in dramatic arts this year.

I sat through a year of Hamlet at school. Even now I could probably rhyme off a dozen quotes to scatter through an essay on the subject. But did I enjoy studying it? Hell no. Now I don't know how much of that was due to me being 16 or having the world's worst English teacher. But having now seen Shakespeare performed in a number of quality productions I firmly believe that we did it no service by the way I was taught it in school. I just hope it's taught a little better now.

Hamlet continues its sold out run until January 10.
Photo by Ellie Kurttz. Used with permission.


Monday, December 29, 2008

"The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe" - December 2008

For our final show of 2008 we headed through to Edinburgh for the Lyceum's adaptation of CS Lewis' novel. And with Christmas being a time for family and all that we brought a few members of the extended Muppet family along with us - all of whom seemed to greatly enjoy the afternoon.

Opening with a fantastic set piece that sees the children evacuated from the city, through clever direction and lighting we follow their train journey through to their arrival at their temporary home. And even though entirely unspoken, the performances are so well crafted that they serve as a good introduction to each of the characters.

The four children are played by Scott Hoatson (Peter), Jenny Hulse (Susan), Neil Thomas (Edmund) and Amy McAllister (Lucy) who despite the inherent difficulties in playing characters obviously younger than their years, do an excellent job of bringing them life. As the White Witch, Meg Fraser provides just the right level of threat while Daniel Williams makes for an impressive Aslan and the rest of the cast provide strong support.

With a considerable younger contingent in the audience it's clearly an advantage to limit the run time (just over two hours including an interval) but as a result the story does seem somewhat rushed, and characters don't always get sufficient stage time to really make the impact they should - particularly Aslan, Peter & Susan.

While the show perhaps lacks the sparkle to make it truly memorable, that shouldn't take away from what is an effectively told tale that kept the audience enthralled throughout.

The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe runs at the Lyceum until 3rd January.
Image by Alan McCredie used with permission


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Now Booking for Spring 2009

Over the next couple of weeks there will of course be lots of running around and last minute Christmas shopping (and then the January sales), but there will also no doubt be the quiet days spent recovering from over-indulgence. And it's a great opportunity to catch up on all those Spring programmes for the theatres that have been dropping through the letterbox amongst the Christmas cards. Here's our round up of our current plans for the first half of 2009...

The Citizens' was one of the first theatres to launch their programme and we've quickly booked up for a couple of shows and we plan on booking a few more once we have a better idea of our other plans. "Sub Rosa" from Fire Exit & the Citizens is a site specific piece which will promenade around backstage areas in the Citz and is 'not for the squeamish' (review now posted) and we've also booked for Tamasha's Bollywood style take on "Wuthering Heights" (review now posted). At the moment we don't plan on seeing "Educating Rita" but that may change once casting is announced (review now posted), and we'll need to give a bit more thought before deciding on their production of Ibsen's "Ghosts". We'll have already seen the National Theatre of Scotland & Donmar Warehouse's "Be Near Me" before it reaches the Citz (review now posted) and we enjoyed NLP's "Singin' I'm No a Billy He's a Tim" at Cumbernauld earlier this year. But we do plan to book for the Citizens Community Company's "My Clydeside Valentine" (review now posted) and the Young Company's "Citizen Y" nearer the time (review now posted).

As well as "Be Near Me" the National Theatre of Scotland has also grabbed our attention with the intriguing "Dolls" based on a Japanese film at the Tramway at the end of January (review now posted).

In 2008 the Tron's programming really worked for us, and their Spring 2009 shows look like maintaining our interest. We've booked up for Irish 'Troubles' set thriller "Defender of the Faith" (review now posted), Tam Dean Burn in "Year of the Horse" (review now posted) and we'll also catch a couple of shows we missed at the Fringe in "The Tailor of Inverness" (review now posted) and "The Angel & The Woodcutter" (review now posted). I'm also quite keen to see "Do I Mean Anything To You Or Am I Just Passing By?" but it could prove tricky to fit in.

Glasgow's Theatre Royal has lured us back with the touring production of "Cabaret" but in truth the attraction is that it stars Sam Barks who was our household's favourite in the BBC's Search-for-Nancy show (review now posted).

Over in Edinburgh at the Lyceum they have several shows of interest but their ticket prices make us wary of taking a punt on shows in advance of seeing a positive review or cast information. However if flexi-time permits I may be tempted to give a midweek matinee a go on my own for "The Mystery of Irma Vep" and "Copenhagen" as Waldorf isn't particularly keen.

In May we're back down to London for "Madame De Sade" starring Judi Dench (review now posted) and "Oliver" with Rowan Atkinson and the Search-for-Nancy winner. We'll also hope to fill a Saturday night slot that weekend with something that catches our eye in the next few months.

One other show we'll definitely be booking up for when tour dates are published is Borderline's production of DC Jackson's "The Ducky" ( review now posted )- a follow up to 2008's award winning "The Wall".

And while we are still working out the best way to take up Bluedog's challenge of giving opera a chance (without breaking the bank), we're dipping our toes in with this year's "Five:15" from Scottish Opera - a performance of five new fifteen minute operas (review now posted).

We haven't seen details of the Traverse programme yet, and we'll hopefully find some shows to see at Cumbernauld Theatre, and we will update this post with details when we get them. And I'll be making a renewed effort to get along regularly to Oran Mor's 'A Play, A Pie & A Pint' lunchtime series.

And as always, we're happy to hear about any other shows we haven't spotted that you think we might enjoy.


"Sunshine on Leith" - December 2008

All last year I was skeptical about the whole concept of Dundee Rep's musical based on the songs of The Proclaimers - it just seemed too daft to work. Even when the glowing reviews were pouring in and the show received a number of CATS nominations I couldn't quite bring myself to believe it. So when the show was revived for a 2008/2009 tour we had to book up to see for ourselves if we had written it off unfairly. We had.

"Sunshine on Leith" is in every sense 'the real deal'. It's a grand, epic West End style musical , but with a distinctively Scottish flavour. Writer Stephen Greenhorn has managed to effectively weave the songs into a coherent story of three couples, and not only do they work as the stories of the individuals, he has also managed to retain some of the social and political themes inherent in the songs.

The six central characters are all brought vividly to life and the audience is quickly emotionally invested thanks to a very strong cast. As parents Rab and Jean, John Buick and Anne Louise Ross really pluck those heartstrings - particularly with Ross's rendition of "Sunshine on Leith". Gail Watson gets the chance to shine vocally as daughter Liz while Kevin Lennon gives a fine acting performance as her boyfriend Ally.

However, the couple the audience are pulling for most are son Davy (Keith Fleming) and girlfriend Yvonne (Denise Hoey). They have a tremendous chemistry on stage, combined with impressive vocals and beautifully nuanced portrayals of their characters. But it isn't just the six leads that make the show work - there is a massive contribution from a substantial ensemble who give the show its scale, and many get their own memorable moments along the way. And James Brining's direction keeps the action moving along and despite a run time of 2 hours 40 minutes the show simply flies in.

Sadly we did have a fairly significant problem with the sound levels and while it didn't spoil the show, it certainly hampered our experience. We were centrally located in row H of the stalls and in the more upbeat group numbers many of the vocals were in danger of being drowned out by the band to the extent that it was impossible to pick out lyrics - and it wasn't down to our west-coast ears. And disappointingly, on speaking to friends who had seen the show a week previously they had encountered the same problem. As a result we recommend picking up the cast recording CD at the performance for a bargain £10 - it gives you the opportunity to appreciate the lyrics you missed first time round. It's also just a brilliant set of songs and hasn't been out of our CD player since we got home.

Sunshine on Leith is a brilliantly entertaining piece of theatre, and even on a matinee performance managed to get the diverse audience suitably enthused. On leaving the show we overheard a group of teenagers who had clearly loved the show including one who hadn't wanted to come but thought it was "really brilliant" and another group who left singing the songs all the way down the road. And while the midweek matinee was an easier option for us, part of me does wonder if we missed out on what must be a pretty incredible Friday or Saturday night atmosphere.

Unfortunately the production may suffer from one of the issues raised within the show. While its Scottishness is a hugely integral part of its charm and heart, it is also what may limit its long term viability. It certainly has the quality in writing and cast that it could potentially command a wide audience around the UK, but I'm not quite sure Londoners are ready to take it to their hearts. It will certainly be interesting to see how the audience responds when the tour dips its toes south of the border with a short run in Coventry.

If you missed out on seeing it last year, don't make the same mistake again. Leave your skepticism behind and give it a chance - I find it hard to believe anyone leaves the theatre disappointed.

Sunshine on Leith runs at the Festival theatre, Edinburgh until 3rd January 2009 and then tours to Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow before finishing in Coventry at the end of February.

Image by Douglas McBride used with permission


Friday, December 19, 2008

"Twelfth Night" - December 2008

It was a fortunate accident that saw us at "Twelfth Night" as part of the Donmar's West End Season. When we managed to get tickets for "Hamlet" on the Monday night it just so happened that our trip coincided with a Sunday performance of "Twelfth Night" - and there were still tickets available.

And our luck held up as we were rewarded with a simply wonderful piece of theatre - enthralling from start to finish with a pace that never flags. With gorgeous sets and costumes it just screams quality, and most importantly the cast live up to all expectations. While Derek Jacobi is very much the face of this production, Malvolio is a fairly peripheral character and as a result its heart and soul lie elsewhere. Yes, he delivers some wonderful comedic moments but these are more a series of cameo set pieces than a truly substantial performance.

Indeed I suspect in 20 years time I may recall this performance as being the first time I saw Dame Indira Varma on stage, before wondering if that was the one that had Derek Jacobi in it as well. Varma is a joy to watch and even from the very back of the stalls her performance was beautifully expressive without losing any subtlety. Victoria Hamilton also excels and her scenes with Varma and Mark Bonnar's Orsino are played to comic perfection; while Samantha Spiro's Maria is delightfully impish as she orchestrates Malvolio's comeuppance. The male cast members all give sterling performances with Ron Cook's Lord Toby a highlight along with Jacobi, but in truth the ladies have the plaudits sewn up here.


Twelfth Night runs at Wyndham's Theatre, London until 7 March 2009
Image by Hugo Glendinning used with permission.


Handel's Messiah - December 2008

Okay, so we've strayed away from our usual territory but indulge us a little... But first it seems only fair to confess that the whole Messiah thing was really just an added extra for us. We had discussed some time ago when watching the Last Night of the Proms on TV that we'd quite like to see something at the Royal Albert Hall someday, so when we had a free evening on our London trip that coincided with this performance it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up - particularly when we could get decent-ish tickets for £14.50 and a tour of the venue costs £8!

Now of course given that we know even less about classical music than we do about theatre, we're in no position to comment on the quality of the playing or the singing (especially as we were seated side-on to the soloists and beside some of the choir), so lets just leave it that we were perfectly happy with the performances from all involved. For the record, details of the choirs performing along with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra can be found on the Raymond Gubbay website.

But our visit was really about the venue and it really is something to behold. Yes, if you look at the detail closely enough it's in need of some attention but the scale and atmosphere in the place is truly phenomenal. I'm not sure that we would rush back for another concert, but given the opportunity to see something theatrical staged here I think we could definitely be persuaded to make the effort if we could combine it with other shows in London over a weekend. We don't quite think "The King & I" will be enough to lure us back but the Royal Albert Hall is now firmly somewhere whose listings we will keep a close eye on.

And that's despite the fact that even a classical concert at such a venue doesn't appear to be immune from morons in the audience - who required a ticking off from Waldorf at the start of the second part of the performance. They then continued to chat to such an extent that rather than my usual ploy of escorting Waldorf to the exit quickly at the end of the show for fear of further 'incident', I tapped them on the shoulder myself and gave them a mouthful. I mean really, what is the point of clapping at the end of a show that you've shown no respect for throughout the performance - despite the fact that some of the choir were sitting literally two feet away.

Image by... em... us. Used with permission


"Framed" - December 2008

We'd booked up for "Framed" by Visible Fictions because of its concept of Scotland's youth having something to say, and with plenty of previous positive experiences with theatre involving young people, we were happy to give this a go - particularly at £4 a ticket. But perhaps that should have been a warning sign that things were not quite as they at first seemed.

Digging a little deeper prior to the show it became clear from Visible Fictions' website that the production was possibly more about developing the young people involved than about producing a piece of theatre for public consumption (with the Prince's Trust Scotland being involved). In truth we debated whether or not we should be posting comment on it but felt the decision had to be made prior to seeing the show, and on the basis that the Tramway website in particular was promoting the show strongly, we felt it demanded the same attention we would give any production seeking an audience - and as always, we don't make any allowances for age, experience etc - all performances are considered in the same way as if they were professional.

At the performance it fairly quickly became clear that we wouldn't be seeing a constructed narrative with central themes or issues to raise - this was very much a show made up of individuals each telling elements of their own (and possibly their own) stories. Yes, Visible Fictions have added an impressive technical polish and some very effective visuals but the same effort didn't appear to have been expended on focusing the content.

While there are some powerful moments, the applause at the end seemed perhaps more supportive than appreciative. This shouldn't detract from what are no doubt significant individual achievements from those participating in reaching a level of confidence where they could perform - but I do think it raises questions as to whether they should really have been exposed to the wider public as opposed to an invited audience. This is clearly a valuable project but without further development and focus it runs the risk of being unfair on both its audience and participants.

Framed has now completed its run at the Tramway
Image by Douglas McBride used with permission


Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Wicked Christmas 3" - December 2008

While all around, theatres invoke the festive spirit and preach goodwill to all with family friendly shows full of cheer, we knew we could rely on the Citizens Community Company's "Wicked Christmas 3" to deliver a sharper glance at our modern Christmas.

This year's show contains twelve short acts in a variety of styles and tones - from an amusing group song to hard hitting looks at exclusion and loss. There will always be hits and misses in such a show, but often that's more to do with personal taste than any lack in quality. And while neither of us were particularly taken by the 'Tree of Life' segment this was in part due to the decision to thread it throughout the evening rather than perform it as a single piece.

Anne Marie McLeod's "The Poor Philosopher" gave us a sombre look at the commercialisation of Christmas from someone on the outside and an image that will haunt my remaining Christmas shopping trips, while Kathleen Harrison's tale of family grief brought a lump to even a cynical throat. But for sheer entertainment Neil Bratchpiece's "The Wee Man v Santa" and "Munchkin Strike" are hard to beat. The Glasgow 'ned' is in danger of being overexposed these days, but when he's as well written and delivered as this it's always going to hit the target in home territory. But in the "Munchkin Strike" he gives us something that is little short of genius and provided one of the funniest five minutes I've had in a theatre this year - worth the ticket price alone. Other particular favourites of Waldorf were Patricia Preston's "Angela's Story" and Rena Hood's nostalgic "Christmas Adventure".

For those theatre addicts like us who don't really do the whole Panto thing this is a great way to stave off withdrawal symptoms with an entertaining and thoughtful evening.

Wicked Christmas 3 runs at the Citizens until Saturday 13th December
Image by Tim Morozzo used with permission


Saturday, December 06, 2008

"Spectacular" - December 2008

It's the morning after our visit to Forced Entertainment's "Spectacular" at the Tramway, and Normally by now we'd have had our thoughts on the show posted several hours ago. But there's something different going on with this one. And Normally we'll have spent a fair bit of time comparing our thoughts on a show before one of us will type something up, but tonight we only exchanged a couple of sentences before realising that we were singing from the same hymnsheet. Maybe it was down to the rather odd ten minutes we spent before the show in the Tramway's exhibition space that made it different... or maybe it was the fact that "Spectacular" has provoked the worst reaction we've ever had to a show - including our experience with "Waiting for Godot".

And the evening had such promise - the blurb for the show had really grabbed my interest -
A lone performer takes to the stage, explaining that the show we're watching is somehow different tonight. The atmosphere is different, his entrance was off, the lights are wrong, some scenery is missing, some performers are absent. The tone is all wrong. Things are somehow falling to pieces, or maybe things are just now falling into place. The audience reaction, our protagonist says, is not quite what he expected, not quite what he's used to. Perhaps the fact he is dressed as a skeleton has something to do with it.

And although I'd avoided reading reviews I'd seen enough 'stars' plastered over the Tramway walls to have my expectations raised. And let me tell you, it's difficult as a theatre blogger to come home and write up your thoughts when you know they are going to be overwhelmingly negative - especially when you know there are very positive reviews of the show by professional critics. And that's when the doubts can start to creep in. Am I the right person to be writing about this show? Or should I leave it to one of the theatre students that seemed to make up half the audience to give their thoughts instead? In admitting my dislike for the work am I showing a lack of understanding on my part? Will I be the little boy shouting from the crowd or will I be the unclothed King?

Normally about this time in a 'review', even one of a show we haven't enjoyed, I'd try and find something positive to say about it - perhaps a performance, or the lighting, or set. I've tried hard and I'm afraid I really can't - although Waldorf has just said she liked the curtains. Right now I'm thinking that there was perhaps, somewhere at the beginning of the process that brought this piece to the stage, a neat gem of an idea about the thoughts that go through an actor's head whilst on stage but it's been drowned out by everything else that the production has tried to attach to the concept.

And at this bit of our 'review' I'm thinking about how far I can go. I'm thinking of describing the central character as the bastard son of Jimmy Carr & 'David Brent' but I doubt Waldorf will let me. Now I'm recalling that there were a couple of moments in the show where I felt something was about to change, moments of anticipation that all the tedious (and only partly successful) audience manipulation would be revealed as just the foundation for something more. And then the sickening disappointment as I realise there isn't anything 'more' - just more.

Normally it would never cross my mind to leave during a performance (we didn't but it was a close call).

And then, just at the end of a show, regardless of how little I've enjoyed it I will Normally applaud out of respect for the effort of those involved. Normally.

Spectacular runs at the Tramway until Saturday 6th December
Image by Hugo Glendinning used with permission


Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Otter Pie" - December 2008

Theatre company Fish & Game have put together an affectionate (well most of the time anyway) take on classic Scottish novel "Sunset Song" (okay, I've never read it but Wiki was my friend). While the play's moments of absurdity won't be to everyone's taste, and you probably need to be in the right mood to appreciate it, as time went on I found any initial frustrations evaporating and I left with a smile on my face.

I'm keeping this pretty brief as I think much of the fun would be spoiled by knowing the details in advance. It feels very much like a show from the Edinburgh Fringe with a simple set and a playful approach to theatricality. At times it feels a little self-indulgent in the first half and some of the set pieces are stretched too far, but the pay-off as the 'performance' deteriorates makes up for any flaws. Helped by a strong cast the play successfully asks some pointed questions - both about how we live now and how we view the past.

With an extensive tour including some high profile venues "Otter Pie" is perhaps punching above its weight for a show that still feels a little thrown together. But for me that's the most exciting thing about the evening - finding a young company with the ambition, drive and ability to make it all happen. And tonight their efforts were rewarded with a Tramway venue filled with a very diverse audience - including a crowd of young theatregoers sitting near me who were genuinely enthusiastic about what they had just seen.

Otter Pie runs at the Tramway until Saturday 6th December and has sold out all performances.
Image by Robert Walton used with permission