Friday, October 31, 2008

"4.48 Psychosis" - October 2008

SweetScar in conjunction with Tramway and Cumbernauld Theatre have produced a very strong and challenging production of "4.48 Psychosis". The play tackles mental illness and suicide from the inside - the playwright, Sarah Kane, having had a very tragic and unsuccessful battle with depression.

With that in mind you're not going to have an enjoyable night at the theatre. However I doubt you'll see a more thought-provoking, or technically accomplished piece this year.

Normally we'd write a fuller review of this, but we feel that there is little we would be able to say without spoiling it too much. Part of the power of this production is the voyage into the unknown. So rather than compromise that we're going to hold off on posting our thoughts until after its run completes. If you've reached here by Googling for reviews for it before booking tickets - stop looking, just go.

We do strongly recommend it - and if you go you'll see why we wanted to keep you in the dark.

4.48 Psychosis completes is run at Cumbernauld Theatre on 1st November before moving to Tramway from 6 - 15 November

Fuller thoughts now published.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Like the Rain" - October 2008

This grouping of three short plays by Tennessee Williams is being performed in the Tron's studio space as a companion piece to his "Suddenly Last Summer" which is playing in the main house. Rather cleverly it isn't on at the same time and instead follows on after the main show finishes using the same cast (with a nice ticket offer for those booking for both shows). It's a great concept which allows audiences to choose how long they wish to make their evening and it's something I'd certainly like to see more of.

"Hello from Bertha" is an effective little piece of theatre where we witness the final days of ailing prostitute Bertha (Muireann Kelly) as she is 'looked after' by Goldie (Jill Riddiford) who is balancing doing what's best for Bertha with the need to move her on from the brothel if she can no longer bring in an income. While the performances are strong the play simply isn't hard hitting enough to land more than a glancing blow on the audience.

On the other hand, "This Property is Condemned" pulls no punches in it's tale of a young girl literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Clare Yuille's portrayal of Willie is amusing and distressing in equal measures as we learn how she has inherited the interest of the many men who had previously enjoyed the company of her older sister. As she plays childishly on the rails in a dirty party dress, wearing costume jewellery and carrying her doll, the contrast with her tales of her admirers makes for devastatingly uncomfortable viewing.

Sadly, "Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen" concludes the evening on a rather unsatisfying note. Ross Stenhouse and Anita Vettesse give perfectly fine performances but the text seems thoroughly self indulgent and verges more towards poetry than anything dramatic or theatrical. It's also hampered by coming at a point where the seating is reaching the limits of remaining comfortable. If this had been dropped in favour of "A Perfect Analysis by a Parrot" which was performed as a curtain raiser to "Suddenly Last Summer" it would have finished off "Like the Rain" perfectly (although I guess they would have had to rename the collection!)

Steven Bain's soundscape and Malcolm Rogan's lighting design add brilliantly to Kirsty McCabe's design and Andy Arnold's direction. Despite the three distinct elements it does feel very much as one production, and while some parts are stronger than others, the whole is a definite success.

"Like The Rain" is part of Glasgay! and runs at the Tron until Saturday 8th November.


"Suddenly Last Summer" - October 2008

Perhaps this wasn't the significant piece of social drama I was expecting from a Tennessee Williams play but anything it lacks in depth it makes up for in character. And the Tron Theatre Company's production has brought it to life in lavish fashion with two central performances that are electric.

The focus of the play is an informal family inquest into the death of Sebastian Venable, as his mother gets an account from his cousin Catharine who was present during his final days. However it quickly becomes clear that Mrs Venable doesn't want to hear what Catharine has to say.

As Sebastian's mother, Morag Stark gives a wonderfully vicious performance as the Matriarch left holding the family pursestrings (although her swipes with the cane need to be delivered with a great deal more conviction). Clare Yuille is equally impressive as Catharine giving her a balance of strength and vulnerability. In truth, there's little for the rest of the cast to work with but what there is, is done well.

Jessica Brettle's garden set is a wonder and is beautifully lit by Malcolm Rogan, but Steven Bain's soundscape was a little too prominent and proved rather distracting to me at times - although Waldorf thought it nicely atmospheric. The performances make for an entertaining production but the play's grotesque reveal is perhaps a little too "Tales of the Unexpected" and acts as a deterrent to giving the play much further consideration.

A nice touch was the inclusion as a curtain raiser of another short piece by Williams - "A Perfect Analysis Given by a Parrot" - which featured delightful performances by Muireann Kelly & Anita Vettesse. And the cast of the main show can also be seen in "Like the Rain" - three short Williams' plays staged in the Tron's studio theatre immediately following performances of "Suddenly Last Summer".

"Suddenly Last Summer" is part of Glasgay! and runs at the Tron until Saturday 8th November.
Image by Richard Campbell used with permission.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

"Locked In" - October 2008

We'd enjoyed playwright Fin Kennedy's work with Mulberry School for Girls at the Edinburgh Fringe, so when we saw that Half Moon were touring widely in Scotland with "Locked In" we had to book up. Even though the tagline of "a hip hop drama" might have made us more reluctant if we hadn't been familiar with Fin's other work.

Set almost entirely in their pirate radio station 'studio' on top of a tower block friends, DJ Riqi (Lee Hardy) and MC Blaze (Ashley J) broadcast to the nation (well, East London anyway). Their different backgrounds, cultures and religions initially seem to cause few problems to them, but we become aware of increasing pressures from outside as their own 'clicks' frown upon it. The addition of Zahida (Ambur Khan) to the mix is the catalyst that causes the cracks to surface.

By delivering a lot of the play in hip hop rhymes we learn a lot about all three characters very quickly and revealing as they verbally spar. Although it's not a music style that I particularly like, it's so effectively used to tell the story you find yourself caught up in it. It certainly doesn't prevent the story from being accessible, even to those who are perhaps a little older than it's main target audience. Close your eyes, take away the back beat and have the characters speak in Elizabethan English instead and you wouldn't bat an eyelid.

All three actors bring energy to their roles; delivering the sometimes complex lyrics/lines with both humour and attitude accompanied by an infectious soundscape. Half Moon have produced a very technically polished play, with everything hitting the mark. Even to replacing the traditional paper programme with a CD that includes the music that was the back beat to the performances.

An effectively told simple tale of the pressures that surround young people, especially in the inner cities. Highly topical given a summer news cycle that's been dominated with stories of gun and knife crime - particularly in London. Unfortunately the audience at Cumbernauld Theatre was dissapointingly small on a very wet and wild Saturday night, but it was certainly well received by those who had ventured out. It does deserve a larger audience, and hopefully will receive it as it continues it tour.

A highly enjoyable evening which rounded off a successful week of theatre-going.

"Locked In" continues its tour in Scotland - visiting Paisley, Glasgow, St Andrews, Stirling and Galloway before returning to England.

Photo by Patrick Baldwin. Used with permission.


"Cockroach" - October 2008

For the first of the National Theatre of Scotland's short "Debuts" series of plays by new writers, Sam Holcroft has written an impressive piece of theatre - for the first three quarters at least. It's full of energy, humour and has a depth to it, but towards the end it suddenly decides it needs a more dramatic conclusion. Sometimes more is definitely less.

Set in a world of after school detentions the audience will be quickly taken back to the world of John Hughes' bratpack films of the 80's. And it's a comfortable place to be, both for audience and writer. The classroom antics ring true and the characters are quickly filled out to the extent that we're interested in the dynamics between them - although I'm not sure it extended to actually caring as much as it possibly needed to.

Slowly we realise that outside the classroom the country is in the grip of war and we watch as it gradually impacts on our characters. The biology revision sessions work well as the central framing device on which a lot of the play's focus hangs, thanks in part to an excellent performance by Meg Fraser as the teacher. The young cast all do well in portraying the frustrations and impulsiveness of teenagers with Ryan Fletcher's Davey and Helen Mallon's Leah particularly impressive.

Vicky Featherstone's direction is at times stunning - particularly the initial confusion as we enter the transformed Traverse 1. Incredibly she manages to make the 'open walled' classroom feel claustrophobic and oppressive at times, really adding to the tensions, while also allowing us to depart the room entirely for a wonderfully imagined scene between Mallon and Frances Ashman's Mmoma. The pacing works well and it held my attention throughout - although as a whole it felt longer than its 1 hour 50 minutes, and comfort-wise it would have benefited from an interval.

The issues and questions raised by the piece are intelligent ones and I felt it a shame that Holcroft wasn't quite brave enough to let them stand on their own. There's a point in the play about 90 minutes in where we have a speech about it being "a weak man's war" and this seemed a very natural place to end but instead we have a final 20 minutes of melodrama that adds little. And I'd have liked to see a little attention paid to what we have lost in previous wars - genetically and culturally.

But this was never short of entertaining and a great start to the "Debuts" season - the others now have a good deal to live up to.

Cockroach runs at the Traverse until Saturday 1st November.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Moonwalking"- October 2008

After missing the first few weeks of this season's "A Play, A Pie & A Pint" I finally made it along to Oran Mor for Nicola Wilson's "Moonwalking". And it serves as an object lesson that I need to make more of an effort - because I would hate to have missed this one. Taking the form of interlinked monologues, it is perfectly suited both to the venue and the timeslot.

The play focuses our attention on the significance of memory as we meet three characters who are suffering from damaged or damaging memories. Time frames seem fluid and there is a good deal of work to be done by the audience to coalesce the events and while the conclusion is clearly presented, I was still piecing the earlier chronology together as I headed back to work.

The cast gave three powerful performances that drew me in completely. William El-Gardi gives a performance full of passion and emotion as soldier Yusuf and drives home the impact his experiences have had on him and his views on the country he has fought for. But he also effectively portrays the family man Yusuf so wants to be. Louise Ludgate's dizzy housewife Hannah builds an instant rapport with the audience and it's through her that most of the advances in the narrative take place. As a contrast, Finlay Welsh's performance is wonderfully casual as door to door salesman Eric while allowing us an insight into his internal traumas.

While the direction didn't hamper the play, having the three characters mostly seated on stage made for a very static production and given the amount of walking the characters do, I was left thinking how much better it would have been on the catwalk style set up that Oran Mor often features. It would also have given the opportunity for the actors to really engage the audience directly. There were some technical difficulties prior to the show on Monday, so I'm unsure if the lighting effects didn't work or if they literally didn't work, but what we got was more a distraction than anything else.

This is an intense piece of theatre that, although having a light touch at times, has moments that do burn into the mind.

Moonwalking runs at Oran Mor until Saturday 25th October.
Image by Leslie Black used with permission


Monday, October 20, 2008

"The Lesson" - October 2008

A quick trip into The Tron and its smaller, intimate space The Counting House for benchtours Production of The Lesson. At only an hour long Ionesco's play does make for a short evening out.

Starting off gently the tale of a Professor (Peter Clerke), his new young student (Kirstin McLean) and the Professor's over-protective maid (Catherine Gillard) we're beguiled into relaxing into what seems to be a gentle tale about the naivety and over-confidence of youth. However things quickly take a darker and more sinister turn.

According to Wikipedia (what did people do before it?), Ionesco is described as one of the founders of The Theatre of the Absurd along with Beckett and given our experience at "Waiting For Godot" we're probably not the best audience for it. The performances were all of a high standard with Peter Clerke delivering some fine verbal tongue twisters and Kirstin McLean providing some equally impressive physical acting. Gillard's jack-in-the-box maid is delightfully bizarre given her relatively short stage time. There are some lovely touches involving some complex mathematics and a final scene that rounds things up nicely.

However, for me "The Lesson" was like when you look at a surealist painting and you can admire the skill that went into its crafting, and you can see some of what the artist was trying to achieve but it's just a little too bizarre for you to be able to say that you like it.

The Lesson continues an extensive tour, visiting Cumbernauld, Aberdeen, Fortrose, Dornie, Rosehall and finishing in Adross. See benchtours website for full details.

Photo by marc marnie. Used with permission.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

"Six Acts of Love" - October 2008

It's a rare thing for a play to deliver a genuinely gut wrenching moment. Tron Theatre Company's "Six Acts of Love" delivers two of them.

Ioanna Anderson's play is nominally focused on fiftysomething Katherine as she copes with divorcing husband Tom and the deteriorating mental state of her mother Dorothy. But what quickly becomes clear, albeit without much subtlety, is that what we get are lots of 'stories' which feature Katherine on the periphery but are not really her story. Unfortunately what also quickly becomes clear is that the story we are interested in is that of Dorothy and her husband Fergus.

The main plot elements featuring Katherine didn't quite work for me - despite an excellent performance by Barbara Wilshere. The plot device of having to remarry Tom in order to get a proper divorce felt so absurd to me that it drained any meaning from what follows. And while I enjoyed Benny Young's portrayal of Tom I was left feeling that it may have been better had he been an off stage presence in the manner of their four absent sons.

Similarly the final scene's attempt to refocus on Katherine, despite being heavily signposted, comes across as awkward, forced and unnecessary. It also detracts from Clara Onyemere's wonderfully Mary Poppins-esque care assistant Delilah.

But these miss-steps can't take away from the heart of the play - a magnificent portrayal of the desperately sad final months of a once vibrant life, and the effects on those who care for them. I struggled a little to engage with Una McLean's Dorothy in the early stages of the play but her performance after the interval is absolutely haunting. As Fergus, Des Braiden is responsible for many of the play's lighter moments but his struggle between love and frustration is devastatingly real.

Andy Arnold's direction is simple but very effective and despite a run time over two hours it makes for compelling theatre throughout. My one misgiving is the decision not to provide captions of the time frames as indicated in the scriptbook (available for an excellent £3) as some of the transitions would have benefited from it.

While the whole may be less than perfect, the moments of perfection make this a theatrical experience that burns in the mind long afterwards - and leaves a toothmark or two on the bottom lip.

Six Acts of Love runs at the Tron until Saturday 11th October
Image by Douglas Robertson used with permission