Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Review of the Year - 2009"

While 2009 has given us two shows that will live long in our memory, when we look back over the year it's difficult not to focus on the shows that have disappointed. But first, the two shows that were absolute stand outs of this or any other year...

"Sub Rosa" memorably took us behind the scenes at the Citizens for its gruesome tale of a long-gone theatrical company that grabbed us from start to finish. Beautifully written and performed this is a serious contender for our favourite piece of theatre - ever.

Vanishing point's "The Beggar's Opera" perhaps didn't have quite the technical perfection of "Sub Rosa", but it made up for this with an energy and visual style that made it the second of our two highlights of 2009. It may have divided opinions (as shown in the press reviews and the number of 'heckles' added to our post) but we were firmly in the camp of those who thought it was marvellous. It also gave us the clear stand out male performance for us this year - Sandy Grierson's magnificent MacHeath.

Other male performances that really impressed us during 2009 were Finlay Welsh in "Poem in October" at Oran Mor, Matthew Zajac in "The Tailor of Inverness" and both Andrew Lincoln and Toby Jones in "Parlour Song" down in London.

Andy Clark also deserves a mention here for a number of great performances in "Othello", "Tam O'Shanter" and most recently as a panto dame in "Ya Beauty & the Beast". He was also just about the best thing in both "The Last Witch" and "Hoors". Which brings us to the disappointments we spoke of...

Of course it was unfair of us to expect Gregory Burke to come up with a follow up to match "Black Watch" but "Hoors" was so far away from it we found it almost impossible to believe they shared a writer. "Confessions of a Justified Sinner" at the Lyceum was a major let down and we were left perplexed as to why Polly Stenham's "That Face" received rave reviews in London when we saw the Tron's production of it. And two of the National Theatre of Scotland's major productions - "Be Near Me" and "The House of Bernarda Alba" failed to engage or entertain us in any meaningful way. "The Last Witch" was a showpiece of the Edinburgh International Festival but only worked for us in moments and at the Fringe Grid Iron's "Barflies" was equally disappointing.

But even disappointing shows can still be memorable, and in "Barflies", Gail Watson gave the best female performance we saw this year (and she was also the one redeeming element in "The Corstorphine Road Nativity". Other impressive female performances include Sarah Haworth's strong Desdemona in "Othello" and Zoe Thorne in "Spoonface Steinberg".

Looking back this doesn't seem to have been a year full of outstanding individual performances but there were plenty of ensemble shows that made an impact. As well as "The Beggars' Opera", Vanishing Point also gave us the excellent "Interiors" and Borderline proved sequels can work with "The Ducky" (DC Jackson's follow up to "The Wall"). The National Theatre of Scotland Workshop production of "Dolls" was enchanting and XLC's "The Pillowman" was at times literally stunning. At the Fringe, You Need Me's "Certain Dark Things" was beguiling, "Kursk" was cleverly immersive and Nonsenseroom's "Ae Fond Kiss" a beautiful piece of theatre. Highlights of A Play, A Pie & A Pint at Oran Mor were David Ireland's hysterical "What the Animals Say" and Sandy Nelson's heartbreaking "The Glimmering Nymph".

So despite the disappointments there was plenty to enjoy this year. Thanks to all those who have taken our comments on their shows in good spirit and to everyone who has contributed 'heckles' over the last year. Look out next week when we will post our run through of what we'll be seeing in the first half of 2010.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

"Little Red Riding Hood" - December 2009

We know there is a thriving theatre scene for very young children, so we took the opportunity to take along some friends with their three year old to The Arches' contribution to this year's festive shows - Little Red Riding Hood. As this was to be his first experience of theatre his mum had done some careful preparation and ensured he knew the story - but she needn't have worried. The show cleverly starts with a quick run through of the whole tale in a storytelling style (including happy ending) before the characters appear and bring it all to life.

Natalie McConnon makes for a Little Red with a nice blend of sweetness and attitude, while Alasdair Macrae's Wolf is carefully pitched to be scary without being threatening to the young audience. Ewan Donald as the Woodcutter and Mary Gapinski as Granny complete an excellent cast, all of whom managed to make a connection with the audience (young and old).

I was asked by one of our friends before the show if it would work on different levels, and I responded that given the very young target audience I suspected this one would be firmly written for the wee ones. I was wrong - there's plenty here for the adults to enjoy. Not the innuendo that fills many pantos - just moments of clever humour, a nice line in Glasgow patter and a brilliant Little Red Riding Hood song I still can't get out of my head a week later!

Full of charm and energy, with its puppets, live music and songs it's exactly what is required to capture the hearts of the children and delight the adults accompanying them. A lovely piece of theatre.

Little Red Riding Hood runs at The Arches until Sunday 3rd January
Image by Niall Walker used with permission

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

"Wicked Christmas: Cinders' Revenge" - December 2009

Okay... NOW it's nearly Christmas. The Citz Community Company are back with the fourth instalment of their ‘Wicked Christmas’ shows – this year subtitled “Cinders’ Revenge” and featuring scenes/sketches inspired by the Cinderella story. As in previous years this is a dark (read ‘obscene’) and cynical (read ‘expletive filled’) show and most definitely not one for the kids.

This seemed a more ‘even’ show than previous years – perhaps not quite hitting the individual highs as last year, but equally not suffering from the occasional ‘dips’ that we have sometimes encountered. It was also much more balanced in tone and written to a much tighter theme than before – evidence the writers are capable of writing to a brief rather than just coming up with ideas for a sketch. It made for a very coherent piece of theatre that flowed comfortably from one segment to the next, however we did notice the absence of some of the more thought-provoking or poignant moments that in the past served to remind us that Christmas isn’t a happy time for everyone. But given the state of the real world, they are probably right to just aim to distract and entertain us for the night. And we were most certainly entertained…

John MacNeil and Eddie Donoghue made for a rather different type of 'ugly sisters' along with Sashah Park Mason’s shoeshopaholic in Catherine Chan's excellent “A Right Pair” while Patricia Preston's “Who’s Baby?” gave us a very funny (and all too realistic) version of a Jeremy Kyle style show as we find out whether Cindy's baby's father is Prince or Buttons. We really liked what we heard of Judith Hastie’s parody of The Smith’s “This Charming Man” but there wasn’t sufficient volume to make out many of the lyrics, but she did go on to give a very impressive performance opposite Neil Bratchpiece in his hilarious “The Wee Man and Cinderella”. She also wrote "Horace and Morace" - a very funny (and filthy) piece well performed by MacNeil and Alan Ward.

There were no such volume concerns for Frances Rose Kelly and her "Cinders' Peace" which held the audience in rapt attention. Bratchpiece teamed up later with Gary Rowlands as Cinders’s dog-and-horse-turned-coachmen to great comic effect but for me the performance of the night came from Tom Beattie in Anne Marie McLeod’s "Stupit Stories" - a critical examination of the Cinderella story.

But those are only our favourites - all of the segments were well written and performed by a great cast. Of course director Neil Packham will have played a significant role in the success both of the production and the Community Company as a whole, and Neil Haynes has created a striking set.

As we mentioned before, Wicked Christmas sold out its entire run well in advance (and before we had the chance to book), so big thanks to Helen at the Citz who kindly offered to arrange tickets for us that had been held back for the press - which we did of course insist on paying for.

Wicked Christmas: Cinders' Revenge runs in the Citizens Circle Studio until 19th December
Image by Tim Morozzo used with permission

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Monday, December 14, 2009

"The Corstorphine Road Nativity" - December 2009

Having fond memories of watching Tim Firth's "Flint Street Nativity" on television some 10 years ago we were delighted to see that he had adapted it for the stage and localised it to Edinburgh as "The Corstorphine Road Nativity". Its premise of adults playing primary school aged children appealed - particularly as an impressive cast had been lined up. So why did we leave the theatre feeling more ho-hum than ho-ho-ho?

The central conceit works well and we quickly accept the characters on stage as the youngsters - thanks in part to an impressive set design. We're gradually given an insight into the background of each child through chat and song, much of which is a bit hit and miss. A lot of the gags seemed to fall flat, particularly in the first half, and at times some of the humour was uncomfortable. I don't have a problem with that - some of the best comedy should make the audience uncomfortable, but here it was treading a dangerous line allowing significant portions of the audience laughs at the expense of a child with a lisp. Similarly, a few moments of race related humour didn't, for me, pass the 'laughing at' vs 'laughing with' test. Of course the question then becomes whether that is a problem with the writing or the audience.

Much of the rest of the humour is pretty obvious stuff, and at times I did think I'd be better off at a genuine primary school nativity - and certainly more entertained by a 'You've Been Framed' style compilation of them. And disappointingly the Edinburgh references seemed largely of a 'insert local reference here' style rather than a significant reworking.

What should pull the show through are the characters, but for the most part they aren't given much depth - perhaps because there are so many of them. Julie Wilson Nimmo impresses as Mary and her duet with Ryan Fletcher was the highlight of the carol parodies, while Gail Watson shines throughout as "Shepherd".

But there are elements that do work. The gradually revealed impact of parental influence/neglect on each child does hit home, just not as hard as it would if we cared more about the characters, and at times it all feels very calculated. Although there were clearly many in the audience who were enjoying the show considerably more than we were, I don't think our party of three was alone in being underwhelmed by it.

The Corstorphine Road Nativity runs at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre until Saturday 19th December
Image used with permission

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

"A Christmas Carol" (NonsenseRoom/Meanwhile Theatre)- December 2009

Given our low tolerance for uncomfortable theatres, you may well be wondering what on earth made us decide to drag ourselves through to the outskirts of Edinburgh on a foggy night to sit on church pews in a chapel so bitterly cold that it requires hats, scarves, gloves and blankets. But experience has shown that NonsenseRoom's show's are worth suffering for, and "A Christmas Carol" is no exception.

With a cast of two, it's very much in a storytelling format and it feels very contemporary. Not 2009 contemporary, you understand, but 1843 contemporary - when Dickens wrote his classic tale. It's not difficult to imagine a show very similar to this being staged by an acting troupe in the grand drawing room of a stately home to the local landed gentry and their families. And I'm sure they would have loved it as much as we did. Whilst some may say 'old fashioned' we'd prefer to describe it as traditional family theatre at its best.

Andrew Warnock as Dickens/Scrooge and Stanley Pattison as Bob Cratchit (and just about everyone else) have an fantastic rapport and instantly connect with the audience. Their storytelling techniques may be low-tech but they are imaginative, creative and beautifully executed. Dickens, in particular, sounded and looked like he had stepped out of the 1840's, to the extent that it was quite disconcerting to hear Warnock speak in his own voice in a short post show Q&A.

For a show that is so much fun and gets plenty of laughs, its message of goodwill is strongly present and there is also a real feel of the impact poverty can have. Pattison's performance at Tiny Tim's graveside was utterly heartbreaking - Waldorf shed tears. But it was also nice to see an adaptation that gives Scrooge an additional reason to change his ways and hints at the rewards his redemption may bring.

NonsenseRoom and Meanwhile Theatre Productions have created a show full of wit, heart and charm. A joy from start to finish.

A Christmas Carol has completed its run at Rosslyn Chapel but will be at the Scottish Mining Museum at Newtongrange on 13th & 14th and then at East Kilbride Arts Centre from 17th to 19th December.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009

"Ya Beauty & The Beast" - December 2009

We don't really do the whole 'panto' thing, but as members of the Tron's Patrons scheme we received tickets to their show - "Ya Beauty & The Beast" - and as we've heard good things about their previous pantos we thought we should give it a chance. And yes, it did feature all the things we hate - groanworthy gags, songsheets and audience participation - but it also has some brilliant asides, a wonderfully knowing theatrical sense of playfulness and excellent performances.

The 'plot' of course is utter tosh, but then that isn't really the point here, and it works perfectly well at sending our heroes on their quest through the 'Pantosphere' to defeat the evil Barfolemew Beastie. But that doesn't mean there's a lack of quality to the script - many of the set piece scenes are beautifully crafted and there is an almost perfect balance between the elements written for the kids and those with the adults in the audience in mind. Waldorf felt there were a few too many intentionally rotten jokes and for me some of the songs dragged on a little. But if that's the only criticisms from two non-panto fans it surely has to go down as a big success.

Andy Clark makes a fine Dame as Bunty Beautox and has an instant rapport with the audience, even this early in December, and despite a script that suggests otherwise Sally Reid is an impressive principal girl, Mary Hill. George Drennan gets all the right responses as our villain (although his wig once back as his human self was much scarier than his Beastie costume) and there are fine performances from the rest of the cast.

The Tron is a fantastic space for panto as its compact nature helps create a real level of noise and atmosphere and the steep raking ensures even small children will have no problems seeing the stage. But there were some disappointed little ones near the back as there was no way the sweeties thrown into the audience were going to reach that far back - hopefully they will realise that as the run continues and throw some from halfway up the aisle.

This is probably as close as we are ever likely to get to loving a 'proper panto' so for those whose Christmas wouldn't be complete without one, this should deliver everything they hope for and more.

Ya Beauty & The Beast runs at the Tron until 3rd January
Image used with permission

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

"A Christmas Carol" (Oran Mor)- December 2009

That I didn’t hugely enjoy this is almost certainly down to me rather than the show. Firstly, I was looking for an alternative to Pantomime or at least a non-traditional one; secondly, my ‘Pint’ was of the soft drink variety; and thirdly, I was going back to the office afterwards. I’m pretty confident those of you planning a drink or two before the show and staying for another couple afterwards will find this much more to your liking.

As a scaled down panto (with added expletives) it works very well, but rather than subverting the usual panto conventions as I had hoped it might, Dave Anderson & David MacLennan’s show embraces them fully. It’s understandable of course that when you have panto legend Andy Gray on stage, you want him in a ‘dame’ get-up but despite his skilful and playful performance, for me it tired fairly quickly. Like Gray, Anderson is a master at working an audience and as Scrooge he quickly has them falling into line and shouting out the desired responses. Keith Warwick is a strong addition to the cast in a number of roles while Juliet Cadzow adds much of the fun - particularly as an amusingly recognisable “Wicked Witch of the South” (although I hope Anderson & MacLennan were as horrified as I was by the significant portion of the audience who appeared to be applauding her affectionately when we should all have been boo-ing and hiss-ing surely?)

There are lots of amusing references to The Kings and gags at the expense of the financial sector but I would like to think I wasn’t alone in feeling Gray’s portrayal of Gordon Brown was uncomfortable and unnecessarily cruel. Scrooge’s musical number explaining his love of Christmas is a highlight and one of the few occasions when we’re asked to think a little. However, the inclusion of audience participation elements and a songsheet are exactly what’s kept me away from full-on pantomime in recent years.

If you can summon up the required festive spirit (psychological or liquid) then this is a great opportunity to see some fantastic performers work their pantomime magic up close – but it lacked the truly sharp and original script that might have overcome my dislike of the form. Bah Humbug.

A Christmas Carol runs at Oran Mor until Saturday 19th December
Image by Leslie Black Photography used with permission

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas round-up...

Now that we’re almost into December, I guess it’s time for us to do a round up of the Christmas shows that will be appearing at theatres near you shortly...

Firstly, congratulations to the Citizens Community Company on selling out all performances of this year’s “Wicked Christmas” subtitled “Cinder’s Revenge”. It’s a real testimony to the standard these guys have achieved over the last few years that tickets are in such demand - but next year we’d really rather they waited until we have booked up before selling out! In the main theatre at the Citz is “Cinderella” but as it sounds a little too close to a full-on panto I think we’ll be giving it a miss. Same goes for the Kings and the Pavilion which stage “Aladdin” and “Pinocchio” respectively. The Arches have a show aimed at younger audiences with “Little Red Riding Hood” and we’re hoping to acquire a three-year-old (and his parents) to take along to that. We’ll also be seeing “Ya Beauty & The Beast” at the Tron as part of their Patrons Scheme while out in Glasgow’s west end Oran Mor have staged a real coup and have managed to get panto legend Andy Gray on board for “Another Christmas Carol.”

Another version of “A Christmas Carol” is being staged by Nonsense Room out at Rosslyn Chapel just south of Edinburgh. It’s been a real part of our Christmas build up in recent years, and as always we recommend paying the extra and attending their ‘Special Performance’ on Friday 11th December which includes a light buffet and post-show tour of the Chapel. But do wrap up warm – hats scarves, gloves and blankets are a must for this – and we’re really not kidding!

In the centre of Edinburgh we’ve made a habit the last couple of years to attend the Lyceum’s Christmas show and it hasn’t disappointed. However, this year it’s "Peter Pan" of which I’m not a huge fan, and with the National Theatre of Scotland planning a production of the show in spring/summer 2010 I’m not sure I can bring myself to see two in such close proximity. Alternative options include the promise of swashbuckling adventure with “Zorro” at the Traverse and an impressively cast “Corstorphine Road Nativity” at the Festival Theatre. And the Kings in Edinburgh provides “Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates”.

Of course we won't be seeing all of those! We will be seeing "Another Christmas Carol", "A Christmas Carol" at Rosslyn Chapel, "Little Red Riding Hood", "The Corstorphine Road Nativity" and "Ya Beauty & The Beast". But do post your comments here and let us know how you get on with any of the other shows...

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

"An Incident at the Border" - November 2009

Rounding off the autumn season of "A Play, A Pie & A Pint" at Oran Mor before their Christmas show gets a three week run, Kieran Lynn's "An Incident at the Border" is a perfect example of the highs that can be achieved in the format. It's short, snappy, brilliantly performed and packs a considerable punch.

Ashley Smith's Olivia and Laurie Brown's Arthur are at first surprised and bemused as their peaceful moment on a park bench is interrupted by Keith Fleming's novice border guard, Reiver. However their bemusement turns quickly to frustration and anger as it becomes clear that having divided the couple at either end of their bench, Reiver is going to strictly control the border that divides the two newly independent countries.

What follows is a perfect blend of sharp dialogue, pointed observations, well formed characters and moments of farce that works on a number of levels. The cast handle the switches between the comedic and serious moments seemlessly and there's never a sense of it being unbalanced or fragmented. The structure of the piece is inherently limited by the set-up, and I was starting to wonder how exactly Lynn was going to extricate his characters from the corner he had painted them into without straying into 'deus ex machina' territory. Fortunately the resolution, while certainly abrupt, is suitably satisfying.

Oran Mor audiences tend to be generous with their enthusiasm (I think the pie and pint help) and the play received a strong response at the 'curtain call' but during the play I'm not sure it got all the laughs it deserved to get. Quite often in theatres I find myself sitting in silence while everyone else seems to be laughing, but at times here I definitely felt I was one of the few who was getting some of the gags.

An Incident at the Border has completed its run at Oran Mor
Image by Leslie Black Photography used with permission

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Sunday, November 08, 2009

"Othello" - November 2009

Of all of Shakespeare's plays 'Othello' is the one I'm most familiar with. So, to maintain my interest a production needs to avoid playing things safe. Fortunately director Guy Hollands and the Citizens Theatre Company have taken some bold decisions on the characters - but without taking liberties with the text.

Andy Clark's Iago, while retaining his calculating nature plays down any suggestion of it all being a bit of a game to him - we're in no doubt that he's a nasty, vicious piece of work. He also seems less 'in control'. Rather than following a long planned course of action, at times with his addresses to the audience it feels like he's just making it up as he goes along. Shakespeare's great villain reduced to an almost opportunistic thug? It seems such a waste but actually works incredibly well.

The approach taken with Desdemona is similarly bold. Gone is the notion of a fluffy and flighty young girl - Sarah Haworth instead gives us a strong and independent young woman who loves her husband. But she is rightly angered by his accusations of infidelity and refuses to go quietly to her (distressingly realistic) death. For the first time, this is a Desdemona that actually worked for me as a consistent character - someone I would believe capable of defying her father and convention to marry 'The Moor'.

And initially I thought I was in for a bit of a revelation with Othello also. During his early scenes with Brabantio, Jude Akuwudike has a wonderful moment where a single expression conveys completely the disappointment and frustration of someone confronted by racism. But once we leave Brabantio behind, his Othello - while perfectly fine - is very much played straight down the middle.

Similarly disappointing is a by-the-numbers approach to many of the supporting characters and a performance by Philip Cairns as Cassio that for me never broke the barrier to allow me to see him as more than an actor delivering lines. I also had problems at times with several characters at the rear of the stage lacking sufficient projection to reach the back of the stalls.

But this is compelling theatre and despite a three hour run time (including interval) the production rarely felt it's length. And it was good to see pretty much a full house for the Saturday matinee - it's just a shame two of them were ignorant enough to allow their phones to ring and a group right at the front felt the need to walk out during the curtain call. A bit more respect please people!

Othello runs at the Citizens until Saturday 14th November.
Image by Eamonn McGoldrick used with permission.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

"Confessions of a Justified Sinner" - October 2009

As one of the few books on a school reading list that I ever actually enjoyed, I was looking forward to seeing this Lyceum production based on James Hogg's 'Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner'. So it's surprising that last night after seeing the show I could summon up so little enthusiasm to post a comment on it that we seriously considered simply posting "What she said" with a link to Shona Craven's review at Onstage Scotland. We really can't remember a production where just about every element fails as significantly as they do here. Performances, direction, set and sound all contribute to making the show almost painful to watch.

Being entirely fair, with its supernatural elements and the significance of perception this was never going to be a simple novel to stage. Mark Thomson, who adapts and directs, manages the trickier elements fairly successfully but it's with the fundamentals that the problems lie.

His focus is very much on Robert and his mental decline/manipulation by the devilish Gil-Martin rather than the real cause of the problem - his belief in predestination. Robert doesn't need to lose his mind or be deceived and manipulated to commit his crimes - they follow logically from his beliefs, but there isn't enough emphasis here on religion being the problem. It's easy to see the story/play as an attack on those who take extreme actions based on faith, but for me that misses the real target - those who hold irrational beliefs of all varieties (whether they have the courage/foolishness to act on them or not).

We've seen enough of Ryan Fletcher in recent years to know he is a very talented performer, and when I discovered he was in the show I was expecting to see him playing the mysterious Gil-Martin (largely due to the fact we'd just seen him do a great job with a similar role in 'The Last Witch'). But cast as Robert he rarely makes the impact we've come to expect from him, and both Waldorf and I entirely independently felt there was something far too close to "Frank Spencer" about Fletcher's portrayal of the character in tone and mannerisms.

Iain Robertson is equally disappointing as Gil-Martin, leaving the character short in terms of charm, cunning or any real sense of power. Many of the rest of the cast are seriously hampered by having to play multiple characters - some to such an extent that I've only encountered previously when played intentionally for laughs. Poor Wendy Seager and Kenny Blyth are lumbered with five roles each! Only John Kielty (primarily as Robert's brother George), Kern Falconer (as Rev Wringhim) and Rae Hendrie (in her scenes as Robert's mother and his accuser Bel) emerge with much credit.

The revolving set with its angular monoliths provides interest at first but quickly becomes tiresomely overused, often only to enable Robert to keep walking/talking. And in a production where atmosphere should play such a key role the soundscape didn't deliver and the occasional use of projection seemed like a misplaced afterthought. The pace is plodding throughout and after the interval becomes utterly interminable with a series of scenes as Robert is on the run that served almost no purpose.

In fact, the most entertaining moments of the afternoon came from listening to the audience members around us still ranting on about how much they hated "The Beggar's Opera". However, for the record, they actually seemed to really enjoy this show.

Confessions of a Justified Sinner runs at the Lyceum until 7th November
Image by Douglas McBride used with permission.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Open.Stage Playwriting competition

We're pretty sure that most of you, like us, have on occasion sat in the stalls thinking "God, I could write better than that". Well, now the Tron Theatre are throwing down a challenge asking you to prove it. And they are going to put their money where your mouth is. In a competition open to all adults living in Scotland or of Scottish origin living elsewhere in the UK and Ireland they are betting someone out there will contribute something the public will want to see - because come Autumn 2010 the winning play will receive a full scale production on the Tron stage.

Now of course, we don't really think we could do better - so we won't be entering. But this is a fantastic opportunity for those with writing ambitions. Experienced playwrights and complete novices writing their first play will compete on equal terms as submissions will be anonymous when assessed. You don't even need to write a whole play - well not at first. They are initially only looking for outline ideas for a play and sample scenes/dialogues to give an idea of your ability.

Submissions will be passed to a reading panel who will compile a shortlist for for an illustrious judging panel to select three plays which they believe have the most to offer. Each of these three plays will receive development funding, support and mentoring to get to a first draft stage when they will have a trailer filmed for the Tron website. And then those of us whose talent (?) lies in watching rather than writing get to have our say in an online vote. The two runners up will receive rehearsed readings of their play.

The Tron are aware of potential accusations of trying to get a play 'on the cheap' and it simply isn't what the contest is about - the winning writer will receive the full commission of £6,560. So get those thoughts on paper - but don't take too long over it, the closing date is Friday 18th December.

We think it's a great idea, and look forward to seeing the winning play this time next year.

Full information on the competition at www.tron.co.uk/openstage
Image used with permission

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"Arguments for Terrorism" - October 2009

I've taken a couple of days before writing down my thoughts on this week's 'A Play, A Pie & A Pint' at Oran Mor. I'd loved David Ireland's "What the Animals Say" earlier this year so I have to admit my expectations were probably unfairly high for "Arguments for Terrorism". But on reflection, I don't think my expectations were the problem here - it just wasn't very good.

There is a great concept in the piece – what must it be like to be one of the world’s most powerful men one day, and by comparison a nobody the next? Will you indulge a Gollum-like impulse to hang on to it? Or step quietly into the background? The play gives us parodies of George W Bush in his last days in the Oval Office accompanied by his ‘close friend’ Tony Blair whose relationship is a little more explicit than their official biographies currently reveal.

Unfortunately any worthwhile consideration of the men or the issue gets immediately swamped by tired caricatures and laughs bought cheaply with profanity. It feels like watching the first production of a student drama group overindulging their new found license to swear and say rude things. George is stupid, Tony is civilised, George likes a drink, Tony has a thing for Presidents. Yawn. Don’t get me wrong, there are some genuinely funny lines in here – just nowhere near enough of them.

This is a one joke show stretched way beyond its capacity to amuse. On my way into Oran Mor I assisted a lost looking couple on the stairs who hadn’t been before and ended up sitting near to them. At the end, I was sorely tempted to tap them on the shoulder and tell them that it really is usually better than this.

Arguments for Terrorism runs at Oran Mor until Saturday 31st October
Image by Leslie Black Photography used with permission

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Memory Cells" - October 2009

-----FADE TO BLACK-----

Dammit. Saturday night and I'm still nowhere on this one. Maybe I missed something important, or I'm just not bright enough to work it out. I'll have to give up and ask for people to post any better interpretations they have of the ending…

-----FADE TO BLACK-----

I’ll need to be fair and admit that I rarely enjoy endings that are open to interpretation – too much like watching The X Files, Lost or Twin Peaks where the writers don’t know where they are headed either… But even if Welsh did know what she wanted to say with the ending, it simply hasn’t been successfully conveyed to the audience.

-----FADE TO BLACK-----

Guess I’m not getting any help on this one. Right, as best as I can make out, either her ’escape’ at the end (beginning) was her deathbed delusion. Or her capture and imprisonment was his delusion after she eluded him. Or maybe it was her nightmare after her lucky escape from his clutches. I suppose those all fit, but they are also all pretty pointless and surely take away from the strength of the piece as a whole. Why would writer Louise Welsh do that when it was all working so well up to then? The strong characterisation and powerful performances were making the shifting dynamic between imprisoned Cora and her captor Barry really interesting. And it was nice watching the timeline markers fall into place.

-----FADE TO BLACK-----

Damn you Joyce McMillan! I can’t believe you let me down like that.

-----FADE TO BLACK-----

I’ll have to say that Kirstin McLean gave a very sharp performance and transformed believably from frail, infirm and broken to strong and vibrant. And that Tam Dean Burn was wonderfully creepy and managed to make Barry convincingly unhinged. Oh yes, and the set was really good.

God I wish we gave star ratings. Then I could just give it 4 stars, waffle on a bit and pretend I’d understood it. But I don’t know what I’m worrying about – Joyce McMillan’s review is due out tomorrow. Joyce will make sense of it all for me.

-----FADE TO BLACK-----

It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just me. I saw the looks of bewilderment on the audience when the lights went up. I heard enough scraps of conversation to know most of them didn’t have a clue about the ending (and that it had taken many until near the end to realise we were going backwards.) I even spoke with a few of them about it on the way out so I know it wasn’t just me.

-----FADE TO BLACK-----

Okay, what the hell happened this evening? Nice bit of theatre, unsure it really needed the whole ‘reverse timeline’ structure but I did ‘get it’. At least I thought I did until the last five minutes – but I’ve got absolutely no idea what happened after that. Not really a problem though is it? Just forget about it - move on. But I’ve got to write a review of it…and I e-mailed The Arches for an image so they know I'm seeing it. I could always just go for the whole “more questions than answers” cliché or even not mention the end at all. I mean, most people won't have seen the show anyway so they won't know I've skipped anything. But at least I’ve bought myself a few days to work it out - I’ve stuck up a short post saying I won’t comment on the show until its run finishes to avoid spoiling it for people.

-----FADE TO BLACK-----

I can't really write about my thoughts on this show in our usual manner without revealing too many things that would spoil it for those planning to see it. So, I'll hold off on posting my reaction until after its short run finishes on Saturday. But I will say that I did enjoy the show and the performances from Kirstin McLean and Tam Dean Burn are both excellent. And for those of you who have already seen the show, well you won't find any answers here - I haven't the faintest idea what happened in the last five minutes either... Maybe I'll have worked it out by Sunday.

Memory Cells has now completed its run at The Arches
Image by Niall Walker used with permission

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Monday, October 19, 2009

"A Perfect Child" - October 2009

Perhaps it's because the premise of Lewis Hetherington's "A Perfect Child" intrigued me so much that I was left feeling so let down by it. Opening in a consulting room we meet Elizabeth and Victor as they are asked to choose the characteristics - physical and personality - of their yet to be conceived designer baby.

The background is sketched in quickly and effectively as we're informed that they are to be the first couple to be given such extensive options and we will be following their progress as the child grows up. We witness each meeting, years apart, with the medics unseen and unheard on the 'audience side' of the fourth wall. Pauline Lockhart and Barnaby Power do a great job of delivering their lines to the off stage listeners and even more impressively in reacting to their unheard questions without them turning into overplayed noddies.

But almost immediately we lose much of what was of interest in the set-up, and most of the issues highlighted in the 'sessions' are completely unrelated to the genetic issues and could equally be said of any 'normal' family. Of course that may be the point of the piece, but if so I'm not sure it was worth the effort.

There are several directions the piece could have headed off into - the child's response to his situation, the medics' view of the parents child rearing skills, the ethics involved - but instead it meanders towards its (un)dramatic (non)conclusion through what are largely a series of domestic tribulations only skirting on public reaction to the child. I kept waiting for a game changing revelation or punchline but it just never came.

A Perfect Child runs at Oran Mor until Saturday 24th October.
Image by Leslie Black Photography used with permission

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"The Glimmering Nymph" - October 2009

I've missed the first few plays in the new season of "A Play, A Pie & A Pint" at Oran Mor so I was looking forward to getting along this week. But what a disappointment was in store for me. There's no other way of putting it - this visit was a huge let down and not remotely up to the high standards set during my previous experiences. So I have to ask: Have they changed who supplies their pies or was I just unlucky that mine seemed to be half fat and gristle? It's just as well the play was fantastic!

Sandy Nelson's play is brilliantly funny and devastatingly sad in equal measures. We meet Per (played by Nelson) as he climbs onto a girder high on a Swedish bridge cursing the girlfriend and friend whose betrayal has driven him to this. As he composes himself before stepping off, he is joined by Ailsa Courtney's Dubrilla - a somewhat surreal figure of a young woman in a shimmering blue party dress. Over the next 45 minutes they share and debate their reasons for jumping - he to make others feel guilty, her through disillusionment with the political apathy of the world around her.

I don't think its possible for me to capture the essence of the exchanges between the two, but while going all out for laughs Nelson and Courtney establish a chemistry that makes the instant bond between the characters believable. Nelson's portrayal of Per's emotional breakdown is as heart-wrenching a moment as I've seen on stage this year. And the only thing preventing me from connecting with Dubrilla to the same extent was the nagging suspicion the character wasn't quite what she seemed to be. These are two performance right out of the top drawer.

Over the years I've been mildly amused on several occasions reading the extensive credits of Patrick & Rita McGurn as designers for various shows at Oran Mor as at times the sum total of the 'design' can amount to a table and chair. But here their credit is very much earned. Our characters are perched on a wide 'girder' covered in orange paint and 'rivets' in a manner reminiscent of the Forth Rail Bridge with a similarly styled vertical strut at one end. It looks fantastic and instantly establishes the location.

This is a gem of a play that makes a number of points in an intelligent and thoroughly entertaining manner and deserves a life that isn't cut short by a run that only lasts a week.

The Glimmering Nymph runs at Oran Mor until Saturday 17th October
Image by Leslie Black used with permission

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"Odds and Sods" - October 2009

Set in an old-school independent bookies in a declining Scottish town, "Odds and Sods" allows us to spend a day in the company of owner Sandy, ditzy cashier Janice and a number of their regulars.

Writing team Tom Brogan and Fraser Campbell have made a considerable effort to flesh out each of the characters giving them distinct personalities and their own microplays within the bigger framework. In many ways, with its running time of 2 hours (including a 15 minute interval) it's like watching four episodes of a new sitcom back to back. It would work well in that format, but as a single piece of work many of the short tangential moments that develop the characters seem indulgently overlong and too frequent. While having two or three such set pieces or subplots would add to the whole, by my count here we were into double figures and it does impact on the pace of the show.

Comedy wise I need to be up front and say that the style of humour isn't one that greatly appeals to me. I like a more subtle approach than the broad and physical comedy that generates most of the laughs here. But it was clearly well crafted and executed and was very much to the liking of many in the audience. And there were enough nice one liners to give me a fair few chuckles.

After the interval there is a noticeable change in tone and the comedy is a little less 'in-yer-face', taking a back seat to the characters and our central interest in whether long-time loser Shug's accumulator is about to break the bookies. The shift isn't seismic and sits comfortably on the foundations built in the first half but clearly shows the writers are equally at home with the 'manic' level dialled down a little.

The cast all do well, and the few stumbled lines are understandable given the wordiness of the script and the pace and energy the delivery often requires. James Keenan makes Sandy suitably obnoxious as he battles with John Love's hard done by Shug while Moira Byrne's Janice, Will Speirs' scam artist Milton and Christopher McKiddie's washed-up pop star Jordon make the most of playing up the comedy. Robert Radcliffe and Jennifer Byrne as Frank and Shelagh on the other hand play their roles pretty straight and succeed in giving the characters a real level of depth.

Brogan and Campbell also combine to provide assured direction with some nice touches in handling the commentary of the sporting events. If they can pitch this setting and these characters as a sitcom format then I’m certain there would be an audience for it – but I’m just not sure I’d be one of them.

This was my first visit to the Ramshorn Theatre and it’s a lovely building, although the legroom in the seats leaves much to be desired. The theatre is currently campaigning to safeguard its future and I’d hope there's a positive outcome. It’s a great space in a fantastic location that should be looking to expand its activities - not having to worry about its future.

Odds and Sods from You Owe Me Glue and Strathclyde Theatre Group runs until 17th October.
Image by Susan Triesman used with permission.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Lend Me Your Ears" - October 2009

The Citizens Young Co return with an evening of short Shakespeare extracts and their own scenes inspired by his plays. I have to confess that even as someone who has enjoyed previous Young Co productions I wasn't entirely confident I was going to enjoy this one. I shouldn't have doubted them.

Although staged in the Circle Studio, the show actually commences in the Citz foyer with a playful performance between Scott McKay's Romeo and Rehanna MacDonald's Juliet that sets the tone for much of the evening. All in there are 14 pieces that make up the 70 minute show covering most of the Bard's greatest hits.

Jack Kinross and Sampath Fernando make a play for the limelight should any mishaps befall the cast of the Citz production of Othello later this month while Claire Dyer's Lady Macbeth was played with such energy and relish that I'd have happily watched the whole play. I'm completely unfamiliar with Richard III but Chris McCann's fantastically creepy performance also left me wanting more. In fact all of the pieces worked well, but I think my favourite was the interaction between Emma Swift's Hero and Kat Lamont's Beatrice in the "Much Ado About Nothing" segment which was adapted by Emma Swift and directed by Lisa Corr.

Impressively the cast all play to the whole audience - something we've seen many others struggle with in the intimate in-the-round setting. But that level of comfort is something that I suspect comes from the atmosphere that Director Neil Packham and the Citz have fostered - there's a real sense of ownership and community about it.

An enjoyable and accessible night - even for those who don't do Shakespeare.
Lend Me Your Ears finishes its run on Saturday 10th October
Image by Helen Black used with permission.

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Friday, October 09, 2009

"That Face" - October 2009

It's a bit of a coup for the Tron Theatre Company to be putting on the first UK production of Polly Stenham's play since its critically acclaimed London runs. Based around a dysfunctional family - alcoholic mother, absent father, one kid opting out of family life while the other tries to keep Mum together - there's plenty of interest. But there are additional elements that for me just distracted from the impact of the central situation.

Daughter Mia has been sent home from boarding school which makes for a perfectly acceptable dramatic device to bring about the events of the play, but while the cause of her suspension and her relationship with friend Izzy make for some nice moments on stage, it's window dressing that adds little to the characters or plot. Similarly the inappropriate relationship between drunken mum Martha and son Henry feels too 'soapy' and allows the audience to dismiss the whole family set up as an aberration when what should be hitting home is how many young people have to deal with the reality of alcoholic parents on a daily basis.

Director Andy Arnold has shifted the play's setting from London to Glasgow and in some ways the changes are insignificant but in other regards they made it harder to believe in some of the characters. I'd have no difficulty in accepting Henry as a foppish English public school educated mummy's boy, but my Scottish psyche won't let me believe that a privately educated Glasgow lad would be quite so tied to the apron strings.

As Martha, Kathryn Howden's performance is perhaps a little too comfortable in the comic moments and it's at the expense of a harsher emotional edge that, when occasionally revealed, hints at how much darker the play could have been. James Young's Henry captures the character's desperate need to know he made a difference and that the five years of his life he sacrificed haven't been for nothing while Hollie Gordon gives an assured performance as Mia. But for all the fine individual performances there's rarely any sense of chemistry between the characters and even in the moments of heightened emotion and physical violence there's never any real feeling of threat or intensity.

On reading this over I feel like I've somewhat unfairly picked the production to pieces as despite these observations I really did enjoy the evening. And trying to be more positive, I think the reason it frustrated me is that there is a great play in there - it's just been smothered by the more sensationalist elements.

We received our tickets for the show through our membership of the Tron's Patrons scheme which we thoroughly recommend for anyone who is a regular attendee at the Tron.

That Face runs at the Tron until 24th October
Image by Richard Campbell Photography used with permission.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

"All's Well That Ends Well" (NT Live) - October 2009

We had been a little sceptical about the whole NT Live concept of broadcasting live performances on the National Theatre's London stage to cinemas around the world, but after seeing 'Phedre' back in June we were immediate converts. So we were back at Glasgow's GFT cinema on Thursday to see a broadcast of Shakespeare's "All's Well That Ends Well".

As a 'proof of concept' Phedre had delivered technical perfection but this time we were not so lucky. It became clear at the start of the introduction with NT Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner that the sound was significantly out of synch with the video. During the fifteen minutes of behind the scenes chat, attempts were clearly being made to solve the issue and by the time the play commenced the delay between video and sound had improved - but it was still sufficiently noticeable to be an irritation. There were further attempts to eliminate the delay early on in the performance but as these were causing short drop-outs of the sound I would assume the decision was taken to 'make do' until the interval. And fortunately the second half commenced without any noticeable problems.

Perhaps it was in part due to my brain struggling to reconcile the lip-synch but despite what were undoubtedly performances of a high standard I never quite connected with any of the main characters. So much so that my abiding memory of the show will probably be the performances of Elliot Levey and Tony Jayawardena as 1st and 2nd Lord Dumaine and their mischievous kidnapping of Parolles.

Unquestionably an enjoyable evening but not one likely to linger in the memory. Next up as part of the NT Live scheme is an adaptation of Terry Pratchett's "Nation" at the end of January and I'm hoping that will make more of a lasting impression.

Image by Simon Annand used with permission.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"New Works" - September 2009

This was certainly an 'interesting' evening at the theatre, and some of the entertainment started before setting foot in The Traverse. Coming through from Glasgow to Edinburgh on a week night for an 8p.m. start can be tight, depending on the traffic, and unfortunately RSAMD's collaberation with the Playwrights' Studio was at 7.30. So after haring along the M9 to get there, I then joined the rest of the audience standing outside The Traverse for 30 minutes waiting for the fire brigade to give the all clear to turn off the fire alarm and let us into the building. At least it wasn't raining. Credit is due to the professionalism of both The Traverse staff and the performers that despite the delayed start there was no other noticeable impact.

Playwrights' Studio have delivered 3 new plays - works in progress; 2 of which are performed on any given night. Douglas Maxwell's 'The Fever Dream: Southside' was the first act of what will be a three act play, which did leave you feeling a little cheated from the start as you knew that it was likely to leave you hanging. Perhaps because of this I found it difficult to suspend disbelief, especially when things started to get a little surreal. It was at its strongest and most believable with the interaction between the young couple Demi (Amy Conway) and Peter (Matthew McVarish).

As a one act play 'Reminded of Beauty' by Linda Mclean is a more complete work as we're told interweaving tales of loss and its aftermath. Well directed by Marc Silberschatz, there's a suprisingly successful blend of playfulness, grief, loss and despair. Lucy Goldie's performance as the young girl in the middle section was particularly striking, in which a horrible tale is told with almost dance like grace.

An interesting concept from RSAMD, which will be worth keeping an eye out for if it returns.

'New Works' has now completed its run.
Image used with permission.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

"The Beggar's Opera" - September 2009

Mark Thomson, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Lyceum in Edinburgh has quite clearly lost his mind. If he had actively tried to alienate the majority of his theatre's regular attendees I doubt he could have come up with a better way of doing it than this co-production with Vanishing Point and the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry which re-imagines John Gay's original. But perhaps, just perhaps, Mark Thomson is a genius.

You see, we reckon that as theatregoers in our mid thirties we are approaching the top end of the age range of those who will enjoy this show. Of course that's a sweeping generalisation, but we're pretty sure that for every 5 years over the age of 40 you are, the chances of this being your kind of show diminish significantly. And the Lyceum audience isn't exactly known for it's youthfulness. The problem isn't the expletives or the sex, it's the music that forms such an integral part of the show. It's loud, grungy, poppy and you frequently can't make out the lyrics. Exactly the kind of stuff the 'grown ups' will hate.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that a younger audience will love it - provided of course that Thomson can get them through the doors in the first place. So the question then becomes - is this show strong enough to pull in a whole new generation to the theatre and keep them coming back? I'm not sure - but if any show can, it might just be this one.

The show opens with a barrage of sound and visuals quite unlike anything I've seen onstage before - it's rather like watching the opening title sequence of a superhero movie based on a comic book. It's fast and slick as it introduces MacHeath and sets the tone for the rest of the show. The integration between the live on stage action, the video elements and the on stage presence of "A Band Called Quinn" combine pretty much seamlessly. Although there were times in the first half of the show where the levels were off to the extent that the lyrics were almost impossible to catch in some of the numbers 'shared' between cast and band.

Some of the characters are pretty two dimensional, particularly Lockit and Mr & Mrs Peachum, but as I've said, we're firmly in comic book territory here so we don't need complex characterisations. Victoria Bavister and Elspeth Brodie as Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit are suitably convincing as a pair who have fallen for MacHeath's good looks, glamourous lifestyle and patter. But the show is all about MacHeath and Sandy Grierson has produced the most charismatic and captivating performance I've seen on stage since Alan Cumming in "The Bacchae". It certainly left the female contingent of our party drooling.

Eve Lambert's costumes are phenomenal - from MacHeath's gas-masked crew to the faceless inhabitants of the world above. And Kai Fischer's set works brilliantly to bring the elements of the show together and we never question the fact that the same set is used for several distinct locations. And of course we have Alasdair Macrae and A Band Called Quinn's perfectly pitched soundtrack to the show made up of specially written tracks along with short riffs of recogniseable songs. (you can hear a few tracks on the band's Myspace page)

I'm a little bemused by the frequency the charge of 'style over substance' has been thrown at the show. We don't generally go into any depth on the themes and issues that shows provoke - we'd rather leave it for people to decide for themselves what a show has meant to them. But in this case I think it's appropriate to go down that road - at least a little. For me, the whole show was about style over substance. MacHeath isn't a Robin Hood character robbing the rich and giving to the poor, there's no doubt he's an out and out criminal. As I believe the lyrics put it - 'He's a Dog'. He treats Polly and Lucy dreadfully, and yet they are seduced by his looks, his charisma, the glamour and fame that goes with him to the extent they'll give up everything for him. And in the end even our narrator Sandra Sanderson (and by extension the audience) is enthralled by him to the extent that she/we won't see him hang. We choose to associate ourselves with the glamour, image and style of this rogue rather than see justice be done. To me, it's as scorching a critique of our celebrity and image obsessed society as I've seen.

This show is certainly not for everyone, and the Lyceum is a surprising home for it. But do have a look at the trailer for the show on the Lyceum website as it gives a fair idea of what you can expect. I'm not sure that the trade-off of risking upsetting an existing audience in the hope of gaining a new one will pay off entirely, but it's definitely changed the way we think about the Lyceum. Oh yes, we also liked the marketing department's ingenious use of the wide range of reviews the show has received:

The Beggar's Opera runs at the Lyceum until 3rd October, and then goes to the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and Tramway in Glasgow.
Production image by Tim Morozzo used with permission

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

"The House of Bernarda Alba" - September 2009

The National Theatre of Scotland and writer Rona Munro have relocated Lorca's Spanish set play to present day gangland Glasgow where gangsters moll Bernie rules over her five daughters as they mourn the gunned down of head of the family, Tony. But Tony's death has brought added pressures to the family including media attention and the necessity to cement an alliance with another underworld family. And of course the sibling rivalry that erupts as several of the sisters chase the one man. WARNING - the rest of this post will contain spoilers for the show.

There's a lot of chatter about how well the update and relocation work, but to be blunt I have zero interest in that. Along with what I suspect was the vast majority of the audience I haven't seen any other version of the play, so all that matters to me is how well this version works. Are these characters and this situation believable - both as individuals and as a family unit? And sadly the answer is frequently "No".

Munro's dialogue rarely creates a dynamic between the sisters that corresponds with their situation, and I never really felt that these characters had any long term bonds or history amongst them - certainly not the intensity one would expect from being cooped up against their will. Yes, there are some verbal barbs exchanged but they rarely hit home to any great effect. These characters should be much more capable of pressing each other's buttons.

We also felt that the performances were a bit of a mixed bag. I liked Siobhan Redmond as Bernie and Louise Ludgate as Marty but Waldorf wasn't convinced by either, while Jo Freer and Carmen Pieraccini as Maggie and Melly were underused to the extent that they may as well not have been there. I initially hated the performance of Vanessa Johnson as youngest sister Adie but as the show progressed I grew to appreciate the echoes of Redmond's Bernie in Johnson's tones and movement. Oldest sister Agnes suffers badly from a combination of Munro's writing, John Tiffany's direction and Julie Wilson Nimmo's performance that renders her little more than a caricature. Similarly, Myra McFadyen as Bernie's friend Penny seems to exist largely to fill the audience in on the family background.

Munro and Tiffany also bewilderingly bring about the situation whereby Bernie concludes a furious gunpoint argument with Adie by casually placing the gun on a sideboard inches from Adie and then walking away. A mistake there had been little to suggest Bernie would make.

Despite all the negatives I found it a pleasant enough evening at the theatre - Waldorf on the other hand was left cold by it. To be entirely fair, sections of the audience at the Citz clearly enjoyed it significantly more than we did and gave the cast a strong reception at the curtain call.

The House of Bernarda Alba continues at the Citizens until 3rd October and then visits Dundee Rep, the Alhambra in Dunfermline and the Kings in Edinburgh.
Image by Manuel Harlan used with permission.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Three years of View From The Stalls

Three years? Really? It doesn't seem like we've been doing this for that long... although thinking about it, there were one or two nights in the theatre when it certainly felt like we'd been sitting there for a couple of months. But yes, this week marks the start of our fourth year of running the site, and by coincidence we'll also reach the milestone of commenting on our 250th show. So it seems a good moment to take a look back... and maybe answer a few questions.

Why do you bother?
Our reasons for posting our thoughts on the shows we see remain pretty much the same as they were when we started back in 2006. Even major theatrical productions in Scotland can find themselves receiving only two or three press reviews, and many of the smaller scale shows we see can be lucky to get one. While we have great respect for Scotland's community of professional critics, we felt this left room for other, and possibly different, voices.

Does anyone really care what you think?
Well, over the last three years we've only upset a handful of people to the extent that they responded on the blog or contacted us by e-mail. We never set out to be mean, but we have to be honest in our responses and every so often we do see shows that leave us feeling less than charitable. On the up-side, we get a fair amount of positive feedback from those involved in shows who appreciate our posts and take them in the spirit they are intended - even the unfavourable ones.

Why should anyone value your opinion?
Good question... but with a fairly simple answer. We're the paying audience. Remember that bit at the top about us having seen 250 shows over three years? Well, that adds up to a rather tidy sum in ticket sales - much more than we like to think about. If that's not enough and you'd rather read the thoughts of a critic who'll academically dissect a production then you can find that elsewhere. But if you're looking to see what enthusiastic theatregoers, with no ties to the industry, make of a show we'll do our best to oblige. And as we've been doing this for some time now, regular readers should have a feel for how our tastes match with their own - even if only to the extent of thinking that if we hated it it must be good.

You pay for tickets? Isn't the whole point of running a theatre review blog to get free tickets?
We decided from Day One that in the unlikely event of us being offered free/press tickets we would always decline. View From The Stalls is intended to be about us giving back something to the people that give us so much pleasure - not taking from them. Paying for our tickets with our own hard earned cash also focuses our thoughts on what we have seen and acts as a threshold ensuring that we only see shows we want to see - and not anything that's on just because it hasn't cost us anything. We do regularly get offered complimentary tickets, and companies are often surprised when we decline - but they also recognise it as a sign of our good faith.

Why didn't you see XXXXX? Everyone is talking about it. Will you come and see my show?
Despite seeing so much theatre we are actually rather picky about what we see - there are plenty of productions that I'm confident are absolutely brilliant but just not our kind of thing. There are times when we've been persuaded to add something to our plans at the last minute because it's been getting wider attention, but more often than not we end up wishing we'd gone with our initial instincts. We're always happy to consider requests/recommendations, particularly if they include a bit more info on a show than we would have got from a flyer/poster etc. but we do still need to be convinced that it's something we'll have good prospects of enjoying.

Who are you? Why don't you use your names?
When we started out this was partly a safeguard in case anyone took serious exception to our comments. That's something that over time we've come to realise isn't a concern, but anonymity has other advantages that we are keen to maintain. Being able to slip in and out of shows without drawing attention to ourselves means we never build up any real relationships with the theatrical community, so we are saved any attacks of conscience when we have to be critical about someone we've come to know.

Don't you ever get fed up with it all?
Not really. We do this because we choose to, and know we could stop any time - this lack of pressure keeps things fun. There's still plenty of theatre out there we want to see, and we hope to be here commenting on it for years to come.

But blogs are so last year - when are you switching to Twitter?
Not happening. Not now, not ever.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

"The Cherry Orchard" - September 2009

It can be a real struggle to crystallise our thoughts when we haven't enjoyed a piece, and 24 hours later I'm still unsure if the problem was Chekov's play itself, Stuart Paterson's adaptation or Dundee Rep's production of it. In truth probably 'D - all of the above'. What I do know is that it completely failed to engage or connect with us on any level, and left us entirely disinterested. Not to mention desperately wishing they would ditch the 'noises off' of small hatchets impacting on tree trunks and instead fire up the chain saws and get it over with.

You would think a play about a family in financial strife on the verge of losing their house would have a resonance in the current climate, but somehow it all feels far removed from any modern relevance. It's a thoroughly traditional staging, not just in terms of costumes but in terms of direction. It has a dreadfully old fashioned by-the-numbers feel to it. Like watching a TV period drama from the 60s or 70s - all very slow and static. If the intention was to evoke a feeling of inertia it's brilliantly effective - but it makes for an interminable experience for the audience.

I get the feeling that the tragedy/comedy of the play should come from the fact that the characters desperately want to save the cherry orchard but are too proud and set in their ways to take the necessary steps to do so. But here we never really get the feeling that it actually matters greatly to anyone. It's certainly an inconvenience that they would rather not have to face, but at the end of the day, shrug, they move on without any real sense of loss.

I'm reluctant to comment on the performances of the actors as it's too difficult to isolate them from the decisions presumably made by director Vladimir Bouchler.

The Saturday matinee audience may not be typical, and there were clearly some who were enjoying it, but as a whole I don't think there was a great deal of enthusiasm in the auditorium (and we suspect a few escaped at the interval). We don't regret making the trip to Dundee as we learned two valuable lessons - (1) We can add Chekov to our list of well regarded playwrights whose work we will think twice before booking up for. (2) Dundee Rep's restaurant is well worth a visit.

The Cherry Orchard runs at Dundee Rep until 19 September.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

"Twelfth Night" - September 2009

When we responded to director Michael Emans' e-mail suggesting we might be interested in seeing Good Night Out Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night we teasingly warned him that it had been less than a year since we had seen the Donmar West End production of the play featuring Derek Jacobi as Malvolio. But what do you know, both Waldorf and I thought Mike Tibbetts as Malvolio outshone anything Jacobi produced - and the rest of the production was pretty impressive too…

Emans has brought a number of playful elements to the piece – a tartan clad fool, a rogueish Fabian played brilliantly by Lee Dunnachie as a Glasgow ned, a delightfully staged boxing match and an amusingly inserted ‘Big Brother' reference. But other aspects nudge towards being heavy handed – two lip synched songs and a rock’n’roll finish seeming particularly out of place. The pace is kept high and the show doesn’t feel its run time, but there remain moments in the text that wouldn’t have been missed had they been cut.

As Viola/Cesario, Karen Bartke gives an excellent performance displaying some beautiful comic timing – notably in a wonderfully expressive moment as we see the penny drop that Olivia has fallen for her/him. Olivia is played very much in light tones with no real examination of her purported grief or rebuffing of Orsino, but thanks to Laura McPherson’s adept performance the character remains charmingly amusing rather than self-absorbed and irritating. The treatment of Malvolio is remarkably sympathetic and the dour Scot persona fits the character perfectly. Tibbetts makes him equally believable as trusted steward, pompous ass and deluded fool.

There’s plenty of strong support in the form of Anne Marie Feeney’s Maria and Donald Munro’s Sir Toby. Lorenzo Novani did well with the wordy Orsino but there seemed a lack of spark between him and Cesario/Viola. I certainly can’t fault Glynis Poole's performance as Feste the fool, but in making the character quite so clownish it did start to grow old for me before the end (several honks on the horn too many!). The rest of the cast all acquit themselves well – especially Andy Williams’ touching portrayal of Antonio.

On the whole an enjoyable and accessible production of that rare thing - a genuinely funny Shakespeare play.

Twelfth Night runs at the Village Theatre, East Kilbride until Saturday 12th September.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Now Booking / Coming Soon - Autumn 2009

Despite it seeming like only yesterday that the theatre world was consumed by The Fringe, we’ve suddenly found ourselves at the start of a hectic period of shows as the Autumn/Winter season is up and running. So, here’s a quick run through of what we’ll be seeing over the next couple of months…

We’re starting off with a trip to Dundee Rep for “The Cherry Orchard” this week and we might be tempted to make another trip at the end of October for "The Elephant Man".

Only slightly closer to home, through in Edinburgh the Lyceum has a very strong start to their season where Vanishing Point stage their futuristic version of “The Beggar's Opera” (also at Tramway in October) followed by The Lyceum’s production of “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” in October. James Hogg’s book fascinated me when I studied it at school so I’m really looking forward to this one. And more than likely we’ll make our now traditional trip to their Christmas show – this year it’s “Peter Pan”.

But the Lyceum have a surprising competitor to their Christmas show this time round – although not exactly festive sounding, the Traverse and Visible Fiction's production of “Zorro” sounds in tone and date range (4-24 Dec) very much like a family show filled with swashbuckling adventure aimed as an alternative to panto. Before that we’ll be through for "The Dark Things" in October and next week we'll be catching one of a series of "New Works" presented by the RSAMD & Playwrights' Studio which we missed at the Tron last week. On each of three evenings a double bill is staged of 2 from 3 new plays from Douglas Maxwell, David Harrower and Linda Mclean - but disappointingly this means that unless you’re prepared to sit through one twice you can only see two out of the three plays.

Speaking of the Tron, its attention grabbing production this Autumn is a new production of “That Face” – Polly Stenham's play which was first produced in London last year to great acclaim and much attention. It will be interesting to see how a new production of it is received and should certainly be one to get people talking. There are a lot of short-run touring shows at the Tron this season including many in their Changing House studio space. We’ve not really had the chance to check into them sufficiently to see if we plan to see any but we do recommend David Leddy’s “White Tea” which we saw in Edinburgh when it takes up residence for a time in September.

Across the river at the Citizens we’ve booked up to see the National Theatre of Scotland’s “House of Bernarda Alba” in a version by Rona Munro set in Glasgow. For me it’s the cast here that is the big draw – Siobhan Redmond and Carmen Pieraccini in particular. The show also tours to Dundee, Edinburgh & Dunfermline. The Citizens' own major production of the season is “Othello” and I’ll confess my first reaction was to yawn. I guess getting in the school trips makes for good attendances but it just feels dreadfully safe and uninspiring. And although we enjoyed his Hamlet in 2007, the casting of Andrew Clark as Iago seemed equally unadventurous. But sometimes marketing can make a huge difference to a piece and the image used to promote the show of Clark in the shadows with a raised eyebrow and enigmatic grin really convinced me that he could bring something memorable to the role. We’re holding fire at the moment on the Citz Christmas show – Cinderella as it sounds a little too traditional for our taste but we will definitely be booking up for the Citz Community Company's Wicked Christmas.

Finally, the Play, Pie & Pint season at Oran Mor started last week. We didn’t make it along last week due to being out of the country but I'll be trying to catch as many as I can between now and the end of the year.

Do let us know if there's anything else we should be seeing...

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Kursk" - Edinburgh Fringe 2009

It takes something a bit special to get us on the road to Edinburgh after 8pm on a weeknight - and something even more special for us to be arriving home in Glasgow several hours later without grudging the journey. But at 1am, we stumbled through our front door glad we had made the effort to see "Kursk".

I'd loved the concept of this show since reading reviews of its London run - long before I knew it would be appearing at Edinburgh. Staged in a partially mocked up submarine the audience are invited to take a wide view from a raised metal gangway or find a place to stand or perch at ground level and be right in amongst the action.

Despite the title, the focus of the play isn't really the Russian submarine which sank in 2000 with the loss of all 118 souls on board. In fact it's 60 minutes into the 90 minute runtime before the Kursk gets more than a passing reference. Instead the submarine we are find ourselves on is a British vessel - with a mission to monitor Russian navy wargames and the Kursk in particular. And while we witness the events that befell the Kursk at a distance, and there is a short consideration of whether our sub could offer assistance (but thereby revealing its presence in the area), our only real connection with those on board the Kursk is the knowledge that its crew is almost certainly little different from ours. A fact the British crew are all too well aware of.

But it isn't the staging or the true life horror that makes "Kursk" noteworthy. It's the characters that Sound&Fury and Bryony Lavery have created. Yes they fall into convenient stereotypes: the jack-the-lad, the prankster with his own worries at home, the inexperienced young captain, the aspiring poet and the proud new father, but it's the relationships between these broadly sketched characters that works so well. There is a genuine sense that these guys have spent time with each other and while they throw around the banter, this is very much a brotherhood.

Of course, a large part of that success is down to the performances from the five strong cast. It must be a difficult space to perform in, as the acting needs to be able to withstand close scrutiny from the audience in the immediate proximity while remaining sufficiently broad for those viewing from across the room (or even without a direct sightline).

"Kursk" is a truly immersive piece of theatre - both physically and emotionally. Best show we saw at the Fringe this year.

Kursk runs at the University of Edinburgh Drill Hall until Saturday 29th August.
Image used with permission

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Monday, August 24, 2009

"White Tea" - Edinburgh Fringe 2009

"White Tea" by David Leddy and Fire Exit/Tron Theatre at the Assembly Rooms featured high up on our list of Fringe shows early on, as "Sub Rosa" remains not just a highlight of 2009 but one of our favourite shows of all time. And as we'd just returned from Japan and visited many of the same places, this Japanese influenced and based tale had a particular resonance.

Probably due to that recent trip I felt incredibly rude walking into the white clad room with its floor covered in tatami mats wearing my shoes - I had to actually check if they wanted our shoes off. However the audience participation was limited to donning paper kimonos and drinking the tea we were served at the start.

Set in a small intimate stark white space at the Assembly Rooms the performances of Gabriel Quigley as Naomi and Alisa Anderson as Tomoko are supplemented by projections of Japan onto the four walls as we follow the 2 women who despite their different cultures and backgrounds end up sharing a very intimate and personal journey. Naomi, the adopted Scottish daughter of a Hibakusha is summonsed reluctantly to her mother's bedside by Tomoko, her mother's nurse. Visiting her mother's homeland for the first time the three women involved in this tale are fleshed out in front of us. Although the history and culture of Japan are the framework on which this tale hangs, it's very much a story about mothers and daughters; of family expectations and secrets.

Like "Sub Rosa" we're treated to a production that is beautifully lit and devised, and memorable in many ways. However it lacked the magical quality that made "Sub Rosa" so wonderful. Perhaps it's because Naomi, for all her sadness and confusion, is difficult to like and any sympathy you feel for her story has to overcome that. I felt that only at the end was I actually getting to know the real people behind their facades.

"White Tea" continues at the Assembly Rooms until August 31st then tours.

Image used with permission.

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