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
Image used with permission


"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


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


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


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


"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.


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.


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.


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.