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.


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


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


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


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.


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


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