Monday, March 30, 2009

"Lucky Box" - March 2009

David Harrower's contribution to this season's "A Play, A Pie & A Pint" came with no advance indication as to topic or tone, so it was good to see a full turnout at Oran Mor on the Monday lunchtime - before any reviews are out. It shows just how much trust the audience are prepared to put in producer David MacLennan. And I'm pleased to report that their faith was well rewarded.

I'm afraid that this is another production where I think it's best to go in blind, so I'm not going to comment directly on the plot. I'd go so far on this one as to suggest that you avoid reading reviews elsewhere - just in case others are less circumspect. It's not that there is a huge twist or reveal at the end, it's just that for most of the play we're unsure what exactly is going on, and which of the two characters we should fear for. It's a long time since I've been in the theatre quite so uncertain and intrigued about the events in front of me. There are moments of pure electricity between Stuart Bowman and Scott Fletcher as the dynamic cleverly shifts between the two. Fletcher gives a carefully balanced performance allowing his character to be sympathetic and smart while retaining the potential for a darker side, whilst Bowman convinces as a man on the edge.

But going along with Harrower's relentless rollercoaster ride of a play has its problems. Much like watching a series of "24" once you understand what's gone on, many of the characters' actions in earlier episodes no longer seem to make much sense. It leaves the play as one to be greatly enjoyed in-the-moment but possibly not to be reflected on too much afterwards.

There are some nice moments of topicality that get some laughs, and some of Harrower's observations clearly hit their mark but the production suffers rather badly from a combination of the staging and Dominic Hill's direction. The catwalk stage set-up left many of the Oran Mor's regulars confused, and I know I wasn't the only one to circumnavigate the room trying to pick a seat with a good view before realising that all eight of them were already taken. The default positions of the characters on the stage leave much of the audience constantly facing the back of one of the two actors and I find it difficult to believe there wasn't a more adequate way of arranging the space. Perhaps this was designed with next week's performances at the Traverse more in mind.

But this firecracker of a play and its two performances are more than strong enough to overcome any flaws.

Lucky Box is a co-production between Oran Mor where it runs until Saturday 4th April and the Traverse where it runs from 7th to 11th April.
Image by Leslie Black used with permission.


Friday, March 27, 2009

"The Trial" - March 2009

We've previously enjoyed Glasgow College of Nautical Studies drama students' productions, so when we found ourselves in the vicinity of The Citizens' and at a loose end on a Saturday afternoon we decided to catch a matinee of their production of Steven Berkoff's adaptation of Kafka's "The Trial".

Joseph K (James McSporran) descends into a bizarre world of beaurocracy, violence and confusion after being arrested for a crime that no-one is willing or possibly able to reveal to him. He wanders through a maze accompanied by a Greek chorus who take turns to play the other characters that are part of K's tale.

Perhaps deliberately you only get glimpses of these other characters and they seem superficial and two-dimensional. The comedic guards who initially interogate K, are reminiscent of the droogs in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, the lonely and needy Leni, the bailiff and his wife trapped in the system. The painter Titorelli is perhaps the strongest of these characters, probably due to his role in shining a light on the choices that face Joseph K in his struggle to clear his name.

It's very much an ensemble piece from GCNS, but Pamela Shaw as Leni and Sean Reid as Titorelli particularly stood out. And although I enjoyed our afternoon, there was also a strong element of confusion within the story that resulted in me losing track in places and lost me completely at the very end.

In some ways the issues in "The Trial" are more relevant than ever today, but that's perhaps its very weakness. When reality contains more absurdities than are presented on stage some of the strength of message is lost. It's no longer a warning about what might happen.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Poem in October" - March 2009

Stop reading now. Time is short. Rearrange your plans. Do what you have to do to see this lunchtime show at Oran Mor (until Saturday) or at the Traverse next week.

I'm actually going to say very little about this as much of the poignancy of the piece comes from watching it develop over the course of 45 minutes. Robert Forrest's play isn't perfect - it has two or three lines too many that take it past what should have been a powerful end point - but it's pretty damn close. Finlay Welsh's performance isn't perfect - it's better than that. Telling the story of Walt - haunted by lost love, lost independence and what may be the ghost of Dylan Thomas, Welsh's ability to switch characters is uncanny. Truly like watching a man possessed. Beautiful, sad, funny, upsetting, utterly compelling and unsettlingly real. Look past the absurdity of the conceit and Forrest and Welsh have created something with a real power to affect people - and make them think.

Poem in October is a co-production between Oran Mor & the Traverse as part of the A Play, A Pie & A Pint season.
Image by Leslie Black used with permission.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness" - March 2009

We'd passed on this one in our original plans as we'd had a mixed response to our previous encounter with Anthony Neilson's plays in "The Wonderful World of Dissocia". However, a couple of weeks ago Waldorf had her interest piqued by the blurb for it (forgetting about the Neilson connection) and as there were still tickets available for the Citizens £7 Tuesday performance we decided to give it a chance after all...

It's taken me a couple of days to write this up - largely due to the fact that I've struggled to get a handle on my response to it. Taking the form of a 19th century 'freakshow' but replacing physical grotesques with emotional traumas, Headlong and Nuffield Theatre's production looks sumptuous, but I found its delight in amusing the audience with 'gross out' humour deeply depressing. In fact, my initial comment to Waldorf on leaving the show was that I was unsure if I was more disappointed in the production or the fact that much of the Citizens audience seemed so amused by it.

One of the reasons I was so frustrated by the humour, is that underneath all the absurdity, blood and vomit each of the three tales has the potential to be genuinely touching. But despite the universally strong performances from Gant and his troupe (Simon Kunz, Emma Handy, Paul Barnhill & Sam Cox) I think much of the beauty and depth here is lost amongst the audience's gasps and groans.

What's also lost is the sense of accusation that seems inherent as the play progresses. The players debate amongst themselves as to what audiences want (and deserve) to see and while that of course remains a question for theatre I felt it required a more pointed nudge in the direction of the current state of television and "Reality" shows in particular.

And my confused attitude towards the show continues right to the end and its final 'reveal'. While I (and Waldorf) found it overly signposted there was clearly a good proportion of the audience taken by surprise, so I'm entirely unsure as to where to direct my frustration on that front.

While I don't think I can say that I enjoyed the show, I was always interested in it - and I guess sometimes that's more important.

Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness runs at the Citizens until Saturday 21st March and then plays Clwyd Theatr, Cymru and Soho Theatre London.
Image by Ellie Kurtzz used with permission


Saturday, March 14, 2009

"The Pillowman" - March 2009

'Black Comedy'. Two words that are almost certain to grab my attention. But far too often they are attached to something that turns out to be lacking in blackness or comedy - and frequently both. No such failings here, that's for sure. XLC's production of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman" is as funny as you'd want it to be, and darker than is comfortable (which is exactly how it should be).

Writer Katurian finds himself in an interrogation room subject to some 'robust' questioning about the similarities between his gruesome stories and a series of child murders. In the next room his mentally damaged brother Michal is also being questioned about any involvement he may have had. What follows is a beautifully structured piece of theatre as we get glimpses of Katurian's writing along with elements from the brothers' childhood.

As Katurian, Kevin Mains transitions perfectly from confused to despairing but retains the character's quiet dignity throughout. It's a fully committed performance and the violence inflicted on the character has to take it's toll on the performer. As lead interrogator Tupolski, Richard Rankin gives a superb performance giving the character a smoothness which makes his playfulness all the more chilling. In contrast to Tupolski's calm control, the torture-happy Ariel is explosive, but Colin Harris effectively brings out the depth of the character. There's a dynamic amongst the three that I've been trying to put my finger on since seeing the show and it's something akin to watching Neo being doubleteamed by Morpheus and Agent Smith.

The middle of the three acts reunites Katurian with Iain de Caestecker's Michal and provides some of the play's funniest and darkest moments. Mains shines as we see him turn from suspect to interrogator while de Caestecker gives a genuinely childlike quality to Michal.

David Lee-Michael's direction impresses throughout with a great deal of creativity on display in realising the storytelling sequences. Two and a half hours is a long time to spend in the Citizens Circle studio so the decision to go with two short intervals was a welcome one and ensured the show never felt its length.

Thoroughly entertaining, thoroughly troubling. Great stuff.

Oh yes, a special mention for the way Colin Harris effectively dealt with the programme an audience member in the front row had inexplicably decided to place on the set's desk seconds before the start.

The Pillowman runs at the Citizens until Saturday 14th March.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Kyoto" - March 2009

On my way back to work after this lunchtime visit to Oran Mor's "A Play, A Pie and A Pint" I mentally prepared an opening paragraph about how my expectations were too high, possibly unfairly so. But after further thought I'm not prepared to accept that. Yes, as soon as the Season was announced David Greig's "Kyoto" was the one I was most looking forward too, but I'm afraid that by any standards this has to go down as disappointing.

We meet government negotiator Dan (Matthew Pidgeon) and polar scientist Lucy (Vicki Liddelle) as they stumble into a hotel bedroom during an environmental conference. It's an event they have circled around and anticipated at many such similar conferences over a number of years but the opportunities have gone untaken - until now.

While the performances from Pidgeon and Liddelle are perfectly fine and there are a few comic moments, the production feels somewhat unloved. Dominic Hill's direction seems entirely absent, sound and lighting are minimal while Greig's script feels like an early draft that's been fished out from the back of a drawer. The relationship has too many blanks that are never filled in - What finally got them through the bedroom door this time? And now they are here, why the hesitation? There are moments that are so bizarre that it makes the characters ridiculous, an overused running 'gag' that never has a pay off, an ending that left me uncertain - and if there was a message it escaped me.

And then we have the running time. While we've come to expect these lunchtime plays to fit comfortably within an hour they tend to be fairly consistent at 45-50 minutes but this was barely over 30 minutes. Of course quantity can't be equated with quality, but for the first time ever "A Play, A Pie and A Pint" didn't seem such great value.

Not a huge concern of course, I'll shrug it off and be back in a week or two. However, this is the first of five co-productions with the Traverse which will also be staged there starting next week. And that's a real problem, because if this was my first experience of "A Play, A Pie & A Pint" I doubt I'd be rushing back.

Kyoto runs at Oran Mor until Saturday 14th March and then at the Traverse from Tuesday 17th to Saturday 21st March.
Image by Leslie Black used with permission


Sunday, March 08, 2009

"Five:15" - February 2009

No, that's not a mistake - we did see this back in February (but Waldorf's been too busy to write it up). Although us giving opera a go this year was down to Bluedog, last year's original Five:15 show caught our attention but sadly too late to get tickets. So, how did we get on with this year's group of five new short pieces from Scottish Opera at Oran Mor...

Well, first up was "The Lightning-Rod Man" composed by Martin Dixon with Libretto by Amy Parker based on Herman Manville's story. Here, our narrator (Richard Rowe) and by extension the audience is asked to choose between faith and science. Should our Man (Daniel Keating-Roberts) rely on his faith in god to protect him from the approaching thunderstorm or should he buy from the Lightning Rod-Man (Phil Gault)? Set in America it had clear relevance in the continuing conflict between religion and science there as evidenced by the debate on Creationism, but I'm not sure it was much more than a joke at the expense of those across the Atlantic. And I do have to say that for a segment of a concept partly aimed at increasing the audience for opera including the line "To begin, our first character, a Man. I think of him as David Henry Thoreau, philosopher of peace and quiet and solitude. Or for those less well read than I, imagine him as a barn-raising, corn-fed farm boy" is hardly going to banish perceptions of intellectual elitism! But the performances were fine and the music was, well it was 'operatic' but I'm not qualified to say any more than that.

"Happy Story" composed by David Fennessy with Libretto by Fennessy and Nicholas Bone, after a short story by Peter Carey gives us unnamed He and She characters (Phil Gault and Lise Christensen). He is obsessed with wanting to fly and She sees his daydreams as a distraction that threatens their relationship - until she realises that she can be included in his dream. And it really is as slight as that. While Waldorf found it captivating and it certainly had an element of charm, I'm afraid for it lacked any substance and seemed to take a long time getting not very far. Again, performances and music were absolutely fine.

"White" composed by Gareth Williams with Libretto by Margaret McCartney was my favourite segment by a considerable margin. Set in a hospital where a foreign cleaner (Emma Carrington) finds a connection with a dying patient (Mary O'Sullivan) and her mother (Arlene Rolph). I'm pretty sure this is as close as I'm ever going to come to getting opera. Beautifully theatrically staged and lit this was a different beast entirely. While the other four segments all sounded similar (to my untrained ears at least) this was very distinctive with its echoes of hospital equipment and for the first time I felt that the music significantly added to the emotion of the piece.

Composed by John Harris with Libretto by Zinnie Harris "Death of a Scientist" based on the final hours of David Kelly who committed suicide after finding himself at the centre of a media storm over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Here Kelly (Rowe) is portrayed as being tempted into suicide by glamourous Harpies of War (Rolph and Christensen). Had this segment been entirely fictional I wouldn't have had a problem with it, but being based on a real-life tragedy we found it in dreadfully poor taste making it deeply uncomfortable to watch. While not necessarily a taboo subject for a serious drama I have no idea what possessed Scottish Opera to think this was appropriate. However, the performances were impressive.

And finally the Tales of the Unexpected style "Remembrance Day" composed by Stuart MacRae with libretto by Louise Welsh with performances from Carrington, O'Sullivan and Dean Robinson. This seemed the segment that made the greatest effort to break down perceptions and make itself of interest to a wider audience - including an ipod and swearing for amusement value. It also seemed to have the greatest content and actually moved along with considerable pace rather than the frequent (irritating) repetition in many of the other segments. This one had a story to tell and knew how to get us there with a considerable bit of humour thrown in for good measure.

So, what have I learned? Well, I can kind of see why some people can be enthusiastic about opera but I'm afraid I'm never going to be one of them. For me it will always remain a dreadfully inefficient way of telling a story - some of these segments of approximately fifteen minutes amounted to just three pages of libretto. It's all just so S-L-O-W and repetitive and with the exception of "White" the music was so generically 'opera' that it could have been almost interchangeable. And while I applaud any attempt to gain it a wider audience and make it accessible (in cost and perception) I'm far from convinced that their marketing is achieving this to any great extent. Never mind the impact our attendance had on the audience demographics, I'm not entirely sure that Waldorf's grandmother (in her 70s) didn't lower the average age.

That said, I'm genuinely glad we've given it a chance and if the Five:15 concept returns in 2010 we'll probably give it another one. So thanks again to Bluedog who has provided his considerably more informed opinions here.

Five:15 has now completed its runs at Oran Mor and The Hub.
Image by Richard Campbell used with permission


"Baby Baby" - March 2009

Vivian French's play, based on her own novel, presented the audience at Cumbernauld Theatre with two fifteen year old mothers from clashing cliques within a school who find a common bond in their unintended pregnancies. "Baby Baby" isn't quite the challenging or perception altering play it wants to be, but it is a wonderfully stylish piece of theatre with two hugely impressive performances.

Cleverly structured and told in flashback Ashley Smith's pink haired goth Pinkie and Hannah Donaldson's label clad April tell their intertwined stories. In addition to voicing their own characters they each portray a multitude of characters that feature in the other's tale and both give hugely impressive performances in bringing them to life. French's dialogue for the teenagers rings true but there aren't enough moments of humour to significantly raise the entertainment level. Indeed, many of the show's best moments are unspoken.

Jemima Levick's direction keeps things interesting, Jane Howie's movement set pieces are delightful and Philip Pinsky's soundtrack is superb, but oddly the show seems simultaneously too long and too short. While never dragging, at just over an hour it felt closer to ninety minutes, yet it ended while it seemed it still had plenty of places to go. We don't get any real sense of the difficulties the future holds for the characters or more than passing references to the fathers.

And although I'm not unsympathetic to the seemingly central message that these girls made a mistake, and that we all make mistakes, I'd have liked there to have been an appreciation of the cost that mistake (and in fairness, the way society responds to it) will have on the baby. It's not that the play makes things seem too easy - it doesn't, but it does take a distinctly short term look at it.

Thanks largely to the accomplished performances and a clear stylistic vision for the piece, Stellar Quines and Perissology Theatre Productions have put together something that has definitely put them on our 'watch list'.

Baby Baby has been on an extensive tour of Scotland which it completes this week in Aberdeen, Kirkcaldy and Castle Douglas.
Image by Billy Fox used with permission


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

"Educating Rita" - March 2009

When we listed our plans for Spring shows we were unsure about the Citizens' "Educating Rita". Willy Russell’s play about a young woman trying to gain an education from her disenchanted tutor didn’t hugely appeal but we said we would decide once we had cast info. Well, the reason we saw it last night was entirely due to the casting – but perhaps not in quite the way the Citizens anticipated…

One of the things that drove us away from the touring productions at Glasgow's Kings and Theatre Royal was the use of celebrity casts – and soap stars in particular. So when the Citz announced Charles Lawson for the role made famous by Michael Caine and promoted it as starring “Jim McDonald” from Corrie and Emma Cunniffe (from BBC’s The Lakes) I must admit that my heart sank. But a little research revealed that Lawson and Cunniffe both have considerable and impressive stage credentials so we felt obliged to give the Citz the chance to prove that this wasn’t a move towards “stunt casting”.

Fortunately Lawson and Cunniffe are quick to demonstrate that they are more than up to performing the demanding roles that see them sharing the stage for almost the entirety of its two hour run time (plus 15 minute interval). While Lawson is comfortable with the moments of Frank as comic drunk, they are actually fairly restrained and for the most part he makes Frank’s passion, enthusiasm and later his disillusionment the main focus of the character. Cunniffe effectively characterises Rita’s development and makes her believable throughout while retaining the charm of the character.

It would be fairly easy to dismiss Russell’s play as being 'of its time' and having little to say for itself, and to be honest immediately after the show I was left feeling rather underwhelmed by it. But actually, many of its themes kept coming back to me today, sharp reminders that several aspects still have a considerable bite. The questions of 'teaching to exams' and rote learning of facts are more significant than ever – in both our schools and further education establishments; and Rita’s discussion of the impact of her peer group in restraining her opportunities for learning first time round should act as a stinging warning for a generation who (we are told) recoil from intellectualism. Of course the show also has a particular resonance for our little blog here and our ongoing aim of ensuring that we give our own (considered) opinions on shows rather than be influenced by the reputation of a writer/play/actor or what others are saying. Few things set the theatrical blogosphere alight as much as the debate on the value of individual opinion vs ‘objective’ intellectual criticism, and what is 'Educating Rita' about if not that?

However the one element that seems out of place is the portrayal of Frank's alcoholism. While Lawson effectively brings out the character’s frustrations and the inevitable comic elements, there is a lack of appreciation of the damage that’s being caused to others. In the almost thirty years since it was written I think we have moved towards a culture where Frank’s drinking (discreet or otherwise) is less likely to be tolerated and it’s difficult to believe that Frank's students would be hesitant in having action taken against him if they felt they were not receiving 'value for money'.

Jeremy Raison’s direction works well during scenes, but the first act is seriously overlong and overly punctuated by breaks between scenes and I spent the final few short scenes of the first 'half' expecting each one to be the last. It’s a big ask for an audience – especially one with a number of school outings present (although infuriatingly many of them seemed to have come well prepared – share sized Doritos, family packs of Jelly Tots etc etc etc.) We also somehow seem to have acquired an awful habit of applauding at the end of each scene – which only adds to the sense that the action has come to a grinding halt (again). But Philip Witcomb's set is remarkable – I can’t remember a more striking one on the Citz main stage. The mahogany bookshelves and Gothic window are brilliantly atmospheric and the piles of books visible behind the shelves and below the stage are delightful flourishes.

Perhaps this isn’t a production that is going to indelibly etch itself in my memory, and perhaps it takes a bit of thought to identify its continuing relevance, but there is no doubting the quality. In future we’ll certainly give the Citz the benefit of the doubt regarding the use of well known faces – provided they continue to have the stage presence to back it up.

Educating Rita runs at the Citizens until Saturday 7th March
Image by Eamonn McGoldrick used with permission