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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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...