Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"The Love of Three Oranges" - January 2009

A couple of months back Bluedog made a post about attracting people to opera, and what more could be done to get opera novices through the door. We challenged him to find us something to go to, bearing in mind the rather hefty price tickets for Scottish Opera. He took us up on our challenge this weekend, and sent us along to RSAMD/Scottish Opera's production of Prokofiev's The Love of Three Oranges. And it was in French, with singing and supertitles. Now it's taken a lot of fast talking to get Statler to even try out musicals, and the thought of a production full of singing in a foreign language wasn't exactly filling him with joy. However we suprisingly both quite enjoyed our evening.

The story was completely absurd, and when I first read the synopsis in the programme I was completely lost by the third scene. However seeing it acted (sung) out over the course of 2 hours it did actually make much more sense. Well as much sense as a story involving a Prince falling in love with a girl who emerges from an orange (or in this case a Warhol-esque tin of Orange soup), could ever hope to make. The costumes and set design were extravagent and stylishly surreal with the "Empty Heads", rotating portraits, a villain dressed as a cactus and nice use of projection all adding to the spectacle. A special mention must go to "The Eccentrics", who not only provided amusement on stage, but also caused much mayhem during the interval.

What about the music? Well to be honest we're not best placed to judge (when has that ever stopped us before?). The cast was made up of a mix of levels of RSAMD students and visitors from the Rostov State Conservertoire, and a large number of RSAMD students were interspersed amongst the 'regular' Scottish Opera Orchestra and everything sounded fine to our inexperienced ears. The highly catchy March that makes an appearance at various points has earwormed us both, although for me it usually degenerates into Toreador March from Carmen and for Statler the Imperial March from Star Wars when any attempt is made to hum it. For a more informed opinion you're better reading Bluedog's views on it - he did get us into this in the first place.

Watching with supertitles wasn't a huge inconvenience, as there was plenty of time to read whilst the lines were being sung, although given our seating position I did feel like I was at a tennis match by the end. I also do know a little French so was able to fill in some of the gaps that the supertitles missed. Especially when Princess Ninette's place is stolen by the evil Smeraldine and the Prince expresses his horror at being made to marry the green-faced (remember the cactus we mentioned up there) substitute for his true love. A bit of Googling when I came home confirmed I did hear what I thought I had - the prince being horrified at being made to fulfil his promise to 'une negresse'. I'm probably making far too much of this, but I'm not sure whether I'm more irritated by the line being uncensored on stage or by its ommission from the supertitles, leaving a large number of the audience laughing along with an undeniably comic moment, but oblivious of its darker overtones.

Overall it was an enjoyable night, and we're glad we went along. Given the numbers involved and the obvious time and effort spent the evening was undeniably value for money at £20 a ticket. I'd definitely give more than a passing consideration to an RSAMD opera production again for the experience and undeniably clever staging - it's very much an 'event'. However I still can't persuade myself to pay the money for a ticket to a full Scottish Opera production.

The Love of Three Oranges moves to Edinburgh for two performances at the Festival Theatre (28 and 31 January).


"The Tailor of Inverness – Krawiec z Inverness" - January 2009

Where possible we try to see shows early in their run, and as a general rule we try to avoid knowing too much in advance (or reading reviews). But Dogstar Theatre's "The Tailor of Inverness" was enough of a hit at last year's Edinburgh Fringe that we couldn't help but have our expectations raised and that's always a dangerous way to walk into a theatre...

And worryingly, about three quarters of the way through the show I did find myself wondering what all the fuss had was about. Undeniably Matthew Zajac's story of his father's journey from his birthplace in rural Poland to Inverness was an interesting one, Zajac's performance was impressive, as was Jonny Hardie's accompaniment on the violin. But it didn't stand out from a host of similar style shows we've seen in recent years.

Then suddenly the show shifts on its axis and it's no longer the story of the father, but of Matthew and his piecing together of his father's life. Everything that has come before is thrown into a different perspective and what follows makes for absolutely electric theatre. What had previously seemed at one removed is suddenly and intensely personified in front of us. So much so, that at times it heads into a territory that left us feeling a little uncomfortable and voyeuristic, but it is completely and utterly compelling.

I'm wary of saying much more, but it is thoroughly deserving of its considerable reputation and if you can catch it on its extensive Scottish tour it won't disappoint.

As an aside, without wishing to start a West End Whingers style campaign, the decision to have unallocated seating at the Tron was distinctly unwelcome - the foyer simply isn't big enough to comfortably contain the audience in an ordered manner, especially with 4 entrances into the auditorium. It just resulted in a bit of an unseemly scramble.

Full details of the tour are available on Dogstar's website.
Image by Tim Morozzo used with permission.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Sub Rosa" - January 2009

Ladies and gentlemen of a theatrical persuasion... can we please have your attention for a moment. It feels only fair to give advance warning for anyone hoping to impress us with a production in 2009 - "Sub Rosa" has just set the bar and it is very, very high. It is, quite simply, magnificent.

Staged in the backstage and unseen areas of the Citizens' Theatre, writer and director David Leddy's promenade production immerses the audience in the tale of Flora McIvor and the tumult that results from her arrival at 'The Winter Palace' theatre. In a series of scenes we spend time with members of the company and others as they tell us of the part they played in Flora's revolution.

The cast performances are as good as I'll see this year. In cramped spaces, this is theatre at its most up-close-and personal. There are no hiding places - every glance and movement will be noticed but here they are crafted to perfection. There is no fourth wall to break - and with a group size limited to fifteen, every audience member will have felt they were being given personal attention, and that it mattered that they were there to listen to the characters' tales.

It would be unfair to single out particular cast members - they were all marvelous - and it would also risk revealing a little too much. So I think well just say 'thank you' and 'well done' to Cora Bissett, Angela Darcy, Louise Ludgate, David Magowan, Alison Peebles and Finlay Welsh.

But don't get the wrong idea - the strength of "Sub Rosa" isn't just about the performances - David Leddy's script and direction are just as finely honed. The tale is part grotesque horror, part puzzle with a good measure of black humour and the visual delights include a fantastically memorable first sight of Vaclav the Strongman. But during a short pause between scenes, although enjoying the show immensely I suddenly suffered a moment of doubt. It was just all too good - it would take some ending to conclude the evening in a satisfactory manner. Well, twenty minutes later I exited the theatre by a fire exit - completely satisfied by the outcome.

This must be a hugely challenging show technically - there can be several groups wandering through the theatre at any given time, and the cast will perform their scenes 8 times an evening! And yet, thanks to careful planning and our effective guides we were almost totally unaware of anyone else in the building. Substantial contributions are also made by the atmospheric soundscape from Graham Sutherland and some stunning lighting from Nich Smith.

But there is one huge failing that the show has. We never get the chance to show our appreciation to those involved - it doesn't seem appropriate to clap at the end of each segment and there is no group finale. So, cast and creative team for "Sub Rosa", please consider this a standing ovation from View From The Stalls.

Sub Rosa is a co-production between Fire Exit Ltd and Citizens Theatre and runs until 31 January with performances commencing every 20 minutes between 7pm and 9.20pm. Book now - tickets are going fast!
Image by Tim Morozzo used with permission


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

INK - January 2009

INK is an interesting concept. I'm very guilty of focusing on a piece as a whole. For me everything in a production should gel together; the look, feel and sound are all equally important and any one of those being off is a huge distraction. However in a monthly event alternating between The Tron (where we went tonight) and The Traverse, INK discards most of that by staging script in hand performances of short new plays with a common theme. Tonight, appropriately enough for the week before Burns' night, the theme was 'Scotland: An Alternative History'.

With five pieces performed in 50 minutes the plays are certainly short and it was interesting to see the diversity of approaches taken by the different writers to the subject in hand. Although the writing is put firmly centre stage here, it also gave a nice insight into the mechanics of building a production with the actors involved delivering the lines, not just reading it.

The post show discussion with the writers of tonight's works was an added, unexpected, bonus. An enjoyable evening and well worth catching at least once - for £3 you really can't argue.

Armenian Reading by Alan McKendrick
Heretic by Andy Duffy
The Advert by Lewis Hetherington
Diamond Brooch by Joshua Makaruk
The Elvis Monologue by Oliver Emanuel

Scott Hoatson
Jenny Hulse
Natalie McConnon
Jeremy Reynolds
Owen Whitelaw

INK will be at The Traverse 15th February and 26th April, and The Tron 24th March.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Be Near Me" - January 2009

We've been fortunate enough to see the Donmar's productions of "Othello" and "Twelfth Night" in the last year on our trips to London, so the potential of their collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland was enough to see us driving down to Kilmarnock for the evening - despite forecasts for gale force winds. Yes, we could have waited for it to return to Scotland after its run in London, but the draw of seeing Ian McDiarmid's adaptation of Andrew O'Hagan's novel about a troubled priest staged in its native Ayrshire setting was too strong to ignore.

In a production so strongly focused on a central character it can often be to the detriment of the whole, and having the writer (or in this case adaptor) also playing said character is unlikely to minimise this. No doubt the novel gives the peripheral characters more depth, but here they appear to have little life beyond their interactions with Anderton.

In truth I suspect many of the issues I have with the play stem directly from the source material in Andrew O'Hagan's novel. Even before the events that drive the plot towards its conclusion, the relationship between a priest approaching sixty and a teenage couple going off the rails is pretty far fetched. In this adaptation there simply isn't enough indication of him either earning their respect and trust, or of his friendship being sufficiently advantageous to them to make their interest in him believable. While of course such things can happen, it lessens the impact on the audience when it can be dismissed as an aberration without any wider significance.

McDiarmid's performance is thoroughly engaging but is also problematic. While the character is clearly intended to be flamboyant, he is portrayed in a style that is considerably more 'performed' than the naturalistic approach taken by the rest of the cast. In fairness this may be intended to be indicative of the character's life being an act but it remains a jarring contrast for the audience.

Blythe Duff impresses as housekeeper Mrs Poole but can't overcome the feeling that a lot of character development has been lost along the way, leaving the characterisation somewhat condensed, while Benny Young and Jimmy Chisholm give eye-catching performances but are given little to work with. It's left to Richard Madden and Helen Mallon as Mark and Lisa to give the stand-out performances of the evening with Mallon in particular delivering a potentially career enhancing 'on-screen' appearance and showcasing a beautiful singing voice.

But despite an able cast, some sublime moments of direction from John Tiffany as scenes transition and Davey Anderson's musical contribution, the show feels overly long (as evidenced by the gentleman in the audience who had to be woken after three loud snores). At a run time of two and a half hours (including a 15 minute interval) it feels like closer to three, and could really be cut to two. A good start could be made by jettisoning a prolonged dinner party scene laden with heavy handed political comment and the many sectarian references that seem overblown considering that we see little direct evidence of it being an issue which affects the characters.

Much will be made of the potentially controversial nature of the tale and its moral complexity but in fact the play is fairly clear in how it expects us to respond to its characters and the lines are nowhere near as blurred as they could/should be. It does however offer a provocative view of the characteristics we demand, and those we exclude, from our idea of a Scottish identity.

This is an entertaining evening but lacks dramatic power due to an overwhelming sense of inevitability and I'm also somewhat fearful that many of the show's best moments rely on cultural references that may not be as well received outside Scotland.

Be Near Me has completed its run at Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock and will now play at London's Donmar Warehouse before touring to Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh, Perth, Salford Quays, Leicester & Truro.
Image by David Eustace used with permission.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Alien Wars" - January 2009

Billed as "a terrifying total reality experience" Alien Wars at The Arches takes small groups of visitors on a tour to see an alien spaceship that has been discovered in the basement of the venue. The original 'Alien War' experience at the Arches in 1992 is the stuff of legend and is still spoken about in Glasgow with a great deal of affection... and more than a little fear. Its reputation at the time was for seriously pushing the buttons of participants - so much so that I was always otherwise engaged when friends suggested I join them for a trip. Almost 17 years later I'm feeling much braver...

No spoilers here, the fun is all about the unknown, and while they do vary the experience it's best you know as little as possible in advance. But it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that the tour doesn't run to plan.

But let's get to what you really want to know... will it scare you? Well, maybe. We certainly saw other people who were genuinely quite distressed but for us it remained more of a curiosity with an occasional jump rather than generating any real element of fear. We couldn't quite commit enough to the experience to overcome our knowledge that in reality the environment was tightly controlled.

At 15 minutes in length, although clearly quite sufficient for some of those in our tour party, it would have benefitted from at least another 10 minutes to ratchet up the feeling of confinement that the venue can clearly provide.

It's certainly a good bit of fun and the 'cast' performances work well, but it isn't as far away from an old school 'ghost train' as it could (should) be, and the £10 ticket price seems towards the high end of reasonable. That said, the group before us clearly loved it and were already asking when the next 'change of scenario' would be so that they could come back again.

But I'd suggest that if you want to get the most from it, you drag along someone you know will be easily freaked out. That way even if it isn't enough to scare you, there will be sufficient amusement value to make the experience memorable.

Note: While it is the normal policy of View From the Stalls to pay for tickets, our tickets for Alien Wars were won in a competition in the Sunday Herald newspaper.

Alien Wars runs at The Arches until 31 March.