Friday, December 31, 2010

Review of the Year - 2010

We managed to see over 50 shows in 2010 – a bit of a drop from the last couple of years. While that may reflect that there were fewer shows that grabbed our attention, it’s also due to the fact that we had fewer available evenings this year. Time constraints also curtailed my trips to “A Play, A Pie & A Pint” at Oran Mor and we really struggled to find much to interest us at this year's Edinburgh Fringe. Even so, we were unable to fit in a number of shows we had been really keen to see this year such as Grid Iron’s “Spring Awakening”, DC Jackson’s “My Romantic History” and the NTS’ “Beautiful Burnout”. Of course, that still leaves us with a lot of great theatre that we did get to see…

Back in March the Citizens production of “Backbeat” left me with the feeling that it didn’t quite manage to gel its separate elements, but ten months later it remains one of the most striking shows I saw – full of visual style and featuring some excellent performances – particularly from Isabella Calthorpe. The Citz also gave us their brilliantly entertaining “One Million Tiny Plays About Britain” with its energetic cast, and their Community Company’s harrowing “The Grapes of Wrath”. It was also at the Citz that we caught the ingenious and delightful "The Event".

The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Douglas Maxwell’s “The Miracle Man” formed part of their ‘tfd’ season aimed at teenage audiences and was a wonderful piece of theatre for those of any age - a perfect balance between hilarity and heart-wrenching moments.

I was particularly disappointed not to see more of the Tron’s Mayfesto season of ‘political’ theatre as the one show I managed to see – “Address Unknown“ provoked a surprisingly powerful personal response and featured fantastic performances from James MacPherson and Benny Young. In a much less serious moment, but still packing an emotional punch, the Tron’s outrageous production of “Valhalla!” left us laughing all the way home.

The Tron were also involved in what was unquestionably the best piece of theatre we saw in 2010. It’s had plenty of plaudits in places much more significant than our little blog, but we need to add our own recognition of what “Roadkill” achieved. Written with restraint by Stef Smith, creatively directed by Cora Bissett and performed by a wonderful cast it was a flawless piece of theatre that took audience ‘engagement’ to a level I didn’t think existed.

John Kazek’s performance in Roadkill was the finest we encountered this year – transforming chameleon-like from vicious pimp through concerned policeman to a loving African father. Marianne Oldham’s quirky portrayal of “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” at the Citz also made a big impression, while Richard Magowan showed the impact a genuine stage presence can have as Sky Masterson in Theatre Guild Glasgow’s “Guys and Dolls”. Another performance that really impressed us was Joanna Tope in "Promises Promises" and we were completely won over by Janette 'Krankie' in "Aladdin".

Thanks to all those involved in the shows we've seen this year, and also to all of you who have shared your thoughts here. We'll be back in a week or two with our plans for the first half of 2011.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Flo White" - December 2010

We were sceptical, but last year’s “Ya Beauty & The Beast” at the Tron made us believe we could fall in love with their post-modern panto. Sadly it appears even fairy dust has a limited lifespan, and there is not to be a “happily ever after” ending, for despite a sci-fi setting this is very much a traditional panto.

If a panto should be judged on how the children in the audience respond, then "Flo White" is a resounding success. From its first moments the kids are fully committed and involved in the show – particularly impressive in what can be a lull between Christmas and New Year. It makes a particularly good choice for a Christmas outing for parents who get a little nervous around the innuendo that can overwhelm a panto – it's all pretty clean fun here. And although the Tron can’t compete with the 3D effects in Aladdin at the SECC, their own animations work very well indeed and make a nice addition to the show.

But a great panto knows how to balance its appeal for children and adults alike – and it's here that "Flo White" falters. Even adults who enjoy traditional panto might find themselves struggling at times – almost every scene feels just a little too long and cumulatively it becomes a problem. Do we really need two song-sheet moments? Two characters that require to be greeted every time they appear? A time killing audience interaction scene? An overlong and pointless game of bingo? Even a custard pie throwing scene gets tiresome. Only the 'Barry White' and 'Take That' gags have sufficient legs to justify them running through the show.

Alasdair McCrone and Anita Vettesse put in great performances as panto dame Flo and evil villain Hingeroan but at times both characters feel too large for the show more suited for a Kings-style 'spectacular'. Darren Brownlie's robot Mr Brockie goes down a treat with the kids and Derek McGhie makes the most of a limited role. Star of the show may be Sally Reid's excellent Snow White but it was good to see Fiona Wood given the chance to showcase her impressive vocals as So Shy.

It's a pity that the show didn't quite hit the mark for us, but we can certainly understand why many in the audience, including adults, loved it.

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. And particular thanks to the Tron for rearranging our tickets when the snow prevented us attending the opening night.

Flo White runs at the Tron until Saturday 8th January.
Image by John Johnston used with permission.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Aladdin" - December 2010

When I learned that Panto producing behemoth Qdos was attempting to muscle in on the Glasgow market, I found it difficult to see what they hoped to bring to the city that it didn’t already have. And although we’re no fans of most of the existing pantos, each has its own niche. So, my initial response was an urge to resist this commercial interloper – particularly after I read about their national sponsorship deal which involved incorporating Churchill the dog into every one of their pantomimes. But when they announced all round entertainer John Barrowman as their leading man we succumbed to the draw of a star name. And even the later casting of the Krankies wasn’t enough to dampen our enthusiasm. The question remains though – does Glasgow need another Christmas show? And if so, is "Aladdin" it?

There’s no denying that bringing Glasgow-born Barrowman home is a major coup. Glasgow has always had a tradition of creating its own pantomime stars – most recently the late, great Gerard Kelly. But even back in the days of Rikki Fulton and Stanley Baxter they didn’t have the same profile John Barrowman has achieved both nationally and internationally. And from the response in the audience it was clear who most of them (us included) had come to see – and we didn’t leave disappointed. In an age when many celebrities and 'stars' have obvious limits to their talents, it’s great to see one live up to the hype.

But what of The Krankies? Well, they very quickly overcame any reservations we had with some clever in-jokes, impressive physicality and some perfectly played contrived corpsing. We're never going to be huge fans of their humour, but we can recognise that they are absolutely brilliant at what they do. And any similar scepticism about the use of a “3D Genie” vanished just as quickly once we reached the first of several 3D scenes. The effects are stunning – much, much more effective than I had expected them to be. Waldorf may have sat calmly in her seat but I’ll admit to flinching as something flew past my face - and others in our party visibly jumped. The effects provide a huge WOW factor to the show, as does a beautifully executed scene that sees Barrowman flying above the first few rows of the stalls.

The script on the other hand could do with a little more polish. It could be sharper at times, and there isn’t really any concerted effort to make us care about the characters or hide the fact that this is a Barrowman/Krankies vehicle. And while you can argue it’s just giving the audience what they came to see, it’s a waste of a strong supporting cast who appear capable of delivering much more. I’d also have to say that some of the gags based on John Barrowman’s sexuality would have given me concerns - were it not for the fact that he is so clearly the star of the show and has presumably given his approval to the script.

The show appropriates a number of pop songs jukebox-musical-style rather than using an original score. To me it felt like a shortcut too far, but it certainly gets the audience going and no one else I’ve discussed it with had any objection to it. Nor did I hear anyone object to the short scene featuring Churchill. Yes it felt ‘dropped in’ but by that time I could see where my ticket price had gone – if it requires a financial top-up from an insurance company then I can live with that (but do allow us to register mild disapproval by being a little mischievous with our weblinks).

Whilst star names, high production values and technology all contribute to the show’s success, its biggest asset may actually be the venue. We may have seen it at its best in Row D of the stalls, and the lack of significant raking does give me some concerns, but we felt the Armadillo really worked for this kind of show. It has comfortable seats with plenty of legroom – and even the sweet stall prices weren’t ridiculous. If you were to put the same show on here and at the Kings, I would pay an extra £5 for the ticket without hesitation – and in truth probably another £5 without grumbling too much about it (but I would still moan about the £6 SECC car park charge).

But I do worry about what that means for Glasgow's theatres, and with the terrible weather it might be difficult for anyone to quantify the impact Aladdin has had on the other theatres. On a more positive note, I generally believe that theatre-going is a habit and that the more you see, the more you want to see - so if people have been lured in by Barrowman and the 3D genie, perhaps they’ll consider seeing other shows (now or throughout the year).

Aladdin runs at the Clyde Auditorium (the 'Armadillo' at the SECC) until 9th January
Image by Keith Pattison used with permission

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"12 Days of Wicked Christmas" - December 2010

The Citizens Community Company can always be relied on to produce a dark and cynical alternative to the saccharine sweet shows that abound each Christmas. We might not quite be talking Frankie Boyle territory, but this is not a family-friendly show.

Comprising sixteen short segments written and performed by the company, some are more successful than others and I think perhaps there was more of a variation in the quality of writing than in previous installments. But while that may be true of the script, I felt the performances clearly showed further development from the already high levels we have come to expect. Particularly noticeable was the inclusion in several scenes of significant audience participation - all handled very skilfully.

And don't ever let anyone tell you that the Community Company are anything less than professional. During the performance we attended they had to contend with a number of audience members who had to leave the Circle Studio mid-scene - walking through the performance space. There also appeared to be a medical incident taking place just outside the studio that resulted in several more comings-and-goings as audience members offered assistance. Yet the cast were completely unphased by it all and remained entirely focussed.

We enjoyed the whole evening, but of course, we had our favourites. Judith Hastie's "The Turkey's Lament" provided a highly entertaining look at Christmas from the Turkey's viewpoint and Neil Bratchpiece gave us a very un-Disneylike "Beauty and the Wee Man". But the comic highlight was Kat Lamont's "Barbie Dolls" which gave us mental images of a new line of dolls that will stay with us way beyond Christmas.

One of the strengths of these annual "Wicked Christmas" shows is that not everything is about getting laughs. Although the audience seemed unsure quite how to respond to it, Robert Tamson's "Ghost" was actually an emotionally powerful monologue, and Marjorie AM Ferry's "Father and Son" was an insightful look at the generation gap.

But "12 Days of Wicked Christmas" just isn't enough - we're hoping next year they give us a "Wicked Christmas Advent Calendar" with the full 24!

12 Days of Wicked Christmas has now completed its run at the Citizens.
Image by Tim Morozzo used with permission

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Sunday, November 21, 2010

"Roadkill" - November 2010

This was our third attempt to see "Roadkill". We missed out on tickets for its pre-Fringe run at the Tron, and then despite tipping it as a show to see in Edinburgh we found the entire run sold out by the time we were able to plan our schedule. Even this time round, we had checked in advance with the Tron when tickets were going on sale and phoned first thing on the morning they were released - and availability was already limited. But there's no doubt about it - it was worth waiting for. While its inherent nature and limited audience capacity mean it will never become a cultural phenomenon in the manner of "Black Watch", make no mistake, "Roadkill" is a piece of theatre of that level of quality. Please be aware that our comments on the show give more away about the plot than we normally try to do.

Although staged in a flat in Glasgow's southside, the performance began as soon as we boarded the bus taking us from the Tron to the 'venue'. It's a brilliant way of introducing the characters as we meet young Nigerian Adeola on her arrival in Glasgow. And it's partly the wonderful naive optimism she displays in that short trip that makes it so difficult for the audience to watch as she is forced into the sex trade.

When watching a great piece of theatre, I often find particular scenes or lines being indelibly burned into my memory. But that isn't the case here. Instead, what has stayed with me is the almost uncontrollable urge to scream at Adeola to tell John Kazek's police officer of her plight. And I do genuinely mean uncontrollable - I was actually concerned the shouts in my head were going to escape through my mouth. We often talk about theatre being 'engaging' - for me "Roadkill" took the word to an entirely new level.

But although many of the play's scenes are disturbing and distressing, the brilliance of Stef Smith's writing is that it knows when to pull back. So many 'issue' based plays would take things to such an extreme dramatic conclusion that it would lose that vital, and horrific, realisation that what we are seeing is an everyday occurrence. Similarly, I think many writers would have been unable to resist the temptation to have the police officer Adeola encounters be less than genuinely concerned for her welfare. Indeed I think it's this lack of the dramatic that keeps the play grounded in reality and gives it a real power to affect its audience.

And of course, three magnificent performances help a little. Mercy Ojelade's transformation as Adeola is heartbreaking, but for me the real strength in her performance was actually to make it believable that this young girl would find the strength to escape. As 'Auntie' Martha, Adura Onashile brings out the complexity of the character as both abuser and abused while John Kazek is chameleon-like in several male roles.

Much of the credit for the show must also go to director Cora Bissett and her team responsible for the video elements of the production. With projected footage displayed on the walls, ceilings, a TV, and even a cast member, this is by far the most impressive incorporation of video footage and animation I've encountered in theatre. It's used ingeniously to bring Adeola's nightmarish experiences to life in a way we can just about comprehend and tolerate.

Although we could probably guess that such exploitation goes on close to home, it's very easy not to think about it. And while I'm not sure quite how successful it may be as a 'call to arms' for individuals to help those affected, anything that can raise the profile of the issue politically should be welcomed. And importantly, it never feels like the artists themselves are exploiting those living the lives of the characters it depicts, or comes across as preaching to the audience.

Roadkill is a co-production from Ankur Productions, Pachamama Productions and Richard Jordan Productions in association with the Traverse Theate Company and Tron Theatre. It has completed its current run of performances.
Image used with permission

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

"The Wee Man & Muckers" - November 2010

Neil Bratchpiece's appearances as Glasgow ned "The Wee Man" in Citizens Community Company shows over the last couple of years have been some of the funniest moments we've had in a theatre. So when we saw that he was headlining a one-night only comedy evening at the Citz we quickly booked up.

Compere for the show in the Citz Circle Studio was Joe Heenan, and despite a tendency to go a bit local-radio-dj in his audience interaction he delivered some strong material and worked the crowd well. So much so, that we agreed entirely with the unusually insightful heckler at the end of the show who observed that Heenan was the best act of the night. He was... and by a considerable margin.

The first act on stage was Bratchy, and if we were to be generous we could describe his routine as a carefully constructed rambling one. But in truth it felt more like a performance thrown together with little thought or preparation. Next up was Julia Sutherland who delivered a slick and polished set, but one that was pretty short on laughs. Fortunately things improved with the appearance of Mikey Adams who, despite his protests, appeared perfectly comfortable working with an audience on all four sides and generated some good laughs.

Following an interval, and some more good work by Heenan, we got the much anticipated arrival of "The Wee Man". But sadly, a character we've seen work brilliantly in sketches, rarely translated to the stand-up format. Without being able to spark off of other characters, Bratchpiece's writing lost much of its sharpness and attempts at audience interaction were met with mixed success. And incomprehensibly, given that Bratchpiece is familiar with the performance space, a significant part of his set involved displaying a set of images on a pad in the corner - leaving half the audience straining to see the detail and a good number unable to see them at all. His delivery of a comedy rap was also hampered by his decision to lose the microphone - making it impossible to catch many of the lyrics. As a result, what should have been an opportunity to showcase Bratchpiece's obvious talent just highlighted the limitations of the character and a need for greater effort in both the planning and the execution of his performances.

Disappointing.

Image used with permission.

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Thursday, November 04, 2010

"Curse of the Demeter" - November 2010

Inspired by Dracula's journey by sea to Whitby in Bram Stoker's classic novel, writer Robert Forrest gives us his version of the events onboard the Demeter before she finally runs aground on the English coast. Designed to scare its audience in the manner of 'Alien' as the crew are picked off one by one, the fear factor is multiplied by being staged as a promenade performance on board a genuine 'Tall Ship' at Glasgow's quayside.

Quantifying the 'scare factor' is a tricky thing to do, as everyone has different 'buttons' to be pressed, so your mileage may vary. Although there are perhaps only one or two moments which made me jump (and it would benefit from a few more), it certainly created an unsettling atmosphere. Let's just say that there was no rush to be the first to follow our characters down staircases into the darkness.

But then, fear, and particularly fear of the supernatural, is only part of what's important here. Just as significant is the effect the perceived threat has on the relationships between the crew. And while Forrest's writing isn't exactly subtle in making the connection with the current climate of fear in our society, it's a parallel well worth highlighting.

The cast of two, Simon Donaldson and Stuart Bowman, give fantastic performances. Each portrays several of the ship's crew and give the relationships between them a real sense of depth - genuine affection between some; fear and suspicion between others. While they do well to make each character distinct in voice and mannerisms, a little more help by way of props/costumes wouldn't have gone amiss.

Director Douglas Irvine employs handheld video cameras relaying images to strategically placed TV screens at times to give a crew's/monster's eye view of events. While it works well technically, for me the mere presence of the technology often broke the 'spell'. The show is at its most magical when it's at its most low-tech, and perhaps had the 'monster' remained as noises/voices in the darkness our imagination would have made it all the more terrifying.

We saw an early performance of the show*, and we suspect as the run continues it will be tweaked and polished into a unique and memorable piece of theatre.

*This was a performance for an audience of bloggers and social media users which we think was a great idea - although in keeping with our usual policy, we insisted on paying for our tickets.

Visible Fictions' Curse of the Demeter runs at Glasgow's Tall Ship on various dates until 20th November.
Image by Neil Thomas Douglas used with permission.

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Monday, November 01, 2010

"Dracula" - October 2010

Sell A Door Theatre Company are currently touring their production of Liz Lochhead's adaptation of "Dracula" around Scotland before a month long residence at the Greenwich Playhouse in London. And with a stop at Stirling's Albert Halls on 31st October, what better way to spend Halloween.

Louis J Parker is excellent at making his Count menacing and monstrous, but despite an appearance that wouldn't look out of place in 'True Blood', 'Twilight' etc. any sense of magnetism or charisma was largely absent. When this Dracula exerts his power over women it appears solely down to his supernatural powers. However, the moments when he bites his victims are exquisitely realised - wonderfully memorable moments of theatre.

The first act is a little on the slow side as the characters are set up but the post-interval introduction of Alexander Pritchett's Van Helsing immediately brings an energy and sense of urgency to the show. It's a really strong performance and carries much of the second act, but it emphasises the problems with the choices made for Dracula. Rather than our vampire hunter battling against all odds, it would be a foolish man who would bet against this Van Helsing in a battle with this Dracula.

Laura Blackmore and Daisy Burns impress as Mina and Lucy, with Mina's transformation from prim propriety to wild abandon particularly well realised. Madness on stage is often taken to hysterical extremes but Kieran Hennigan's portrayal of Renfield, institutionalised after his encounter with Dracula, is beautifully measured. Sophie Holland deftly delivers much of Lochhead's pointed social commentry as maid, Florrie, while Matthew Grace makes Harker's choices and reactions believable, but for such a central character he actually doesn't have a great deal to work with. The strong ensemble is completed by Ellis J Wells' Doctor Seward and Louise Ann Munro's nurse who both have some fine moments, but due to their characters' fast paced dialogue at times their clarity was hampered by the cavernous nature of the venue, vast stage and expanse between the stage and the audience. Indeed all the cast at times found themselves competing with an overly loud, if admittedly atmospheric, soundtrack.

Despite some flaws, this is a fine production and the audience really responded to it - in fact the biggest mistake I saw on stage last night was the cast's failure to recognise that the audience was demanding a second curtain call. When the audience keeps clapping as long as we did and people are whistling and cheering, it's a shame not to oblige them.

Dracula is now nearing the end of an extensive tour but visits Greenock and Tamworth this week before arriving in London on 9th November.
Image used with permission.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

"A Clockwork Orange" - October 2010

Kubrick's movie I can take or leave, but I'm fascinated by Anthony Burgess' novel. It's always resonated with me and ignites my own internal struggle between my liberal and paternalistic tendencies. In the end, my soft hearted libertarian side always wins out and I find myself sympathising with Alex. But not this time.

It's an unfortunate legacy of the film that any stage production of "A Clockwork Orange" will always have to compete with its iconic style. Jeremy Raison's production for the Citizens smartly avoids appropriating it, but can't escape the expectation of having to come up with something of their own that is equally striking. And while the look and feel of the production captivates the audience, I fear it may be at the expense of the message.

Although we're told (frequently) that in conditioning young Alex against violence the state have taken away an integral part of his humanity, and despite the well portrayed post-treatment physical response to violence, I found it very difficult to view Alex as a victim. For that I needed to see a broken man, someone who realised what he had lost - and not just angry at the unintended removal of his ability to enjoy music. And I just never got that - even at his lowest point Alex still had a glint of mischief in his eye and a barely concealed gallusness, leaving me contemplating that perhaps his punishment hadn't been harsh enough.

In terms of entertainment, the production really can't be faulted. The dance-like portrayal of the ultraviolence is brilliantly conceived and executed; the implementation of the Ludovico technique is cleverly understated; and the joyride into the country is a wonderful piece of theatre in itself. Burgess invented a teenage language 'nadsat' for the novel and this always has the potential to be problematic, and while the production does its best to quickly give context to the slang, I'm unsure quite how easily it would be picked up by someone encountering it for the first time.

Jay Taylor gives Alex a real presence and the charisma to make the character a believable de facto leader of his gang, but also endows him with the air of superiority that proves his downfall. Raison has brought together an excellent ensemble cast who clearly relish their multiple roles - with Derek Barr, Jonathan Dunn and Shaun Mason in particular transforming almost unrecognisably from Alex's droogs to the Minister, the Warder and the Chaplin amongst others . It was also pleasing to see invaluable experience being given to several Citizens Community Company performers; although having seen in the past what they are capable of, they did feel somewhat underused.

As a lover of the novel, I can't help but feel that it's unfortunate that once more audiences will leave a production of "A Clockwork Orange" talking about its style and energy rather than the issues it raises. But those looking for a slick, vibrant and entertaining production won't be disappointed - the Citizens have really come up with the goods.

A Clockwork Orange runs at the Citizens until Saturday 6th November
Image by Tim Morozzo used with permission

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

"One Gun" - October 2010

Ian Low's "One Gun" isn't your typical "A Play, A Pie & A Pint" show - it feels very much a 'proper' play. And I really don't mean that as a criticism of the usual output at Oran Mor. It's just that as they tend to be written with a lunchtime audience in mind, even those dealing with heavier issues are balanced with witty repartee. But Low's play is unashamedly serious in tone and would sit just as comfortably in an evening timeslot in any studio theatre up and down the country.

In a small town on the East coast of Scotland, a teenage boy has been fatally shot. His mother, Cardean (Jenni Keenan Green) finds herself reluctantly involved in a process to determine how the gun should be destroyed. She is assisted by Donald (Robin Laing), a UN Weapons Decommissioning observer and artist Gwen (Louise Ludgate) who has been commissioned to transform the decommissioned weapon into a memorial.

While Cardean deals with her grief, both Donald and Gwen have their own demons to face. With so many elements and a 50 minute run time, the narrative does feel as if it has an ingredient or two too many - particularly when contrasted with Low's decision to leave the details of the boy's death undisclosed. In itself, I didn't mind not having that piece of information, but it did mean that for much of the play I was expecting it to be a final reveal. The cast all give strong performances with Laing being particularly impressive as the outwardly assured Donald undergoing his own internal crisis. The projected backdrops worked surprisingly well at creating a sense of place and the soundtrack was wonderfully emotive.

But although this made for engaging theatre, I wasn't really sure what I was supposed to take from it. The most obvious target would appear to be artist Gwen and an industry that feeds on the grief of others, but Low's treatment of the character is rather sympathetic - perhaps aware of the tendency of writers to do the same. In the end, Low might not have hit the heights he was aiming for, but he deserves a huge amount of praise for his ambition, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of his work.

One Gun runs at Oran Mor until Saturday 23rd October
Image by Leslie Black Photography used with permission.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"Sea and Land and Sky" - October 2010


By declining a much sought after ticket to Tuesday night’s Scotland vs Spain match I thought I would be avoiding that well known Scottish ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Who would have thought that the Tron's Open.Stage playwriting competition winner "Sea and Land and Sky" would prove that theatre can suffer exactly the same fate.

Reading the script for Abigail Docherty's play about Scottish nurses behind the front line in the Great War, it's not too hard to believe that it was the winning entry from over 300 submissions. It works very well on the page, and I can certainly imagine it being given a successful production. But sadly, this isn’t it. I don't think I've ever encountered a production with a direction and design so at odds with the tone of the script.

Despite its bleak topic the play reads like a farce with elements of the grotesque, and is almost Pythonesque at times. But with such a serious setting it's essential to quickly establish for the audience that it's acceptable for them to be laughing. And while there is humour early on, the individual laughs aren't sufficiently powerful to make you laugh-even-though-you-know-you-shouldn't, and there aren't enough of them in quick succession to build any momentum. Or at least, not without help from the other aspects of the production. However rather than enhance the comedic elements, the set, lighting, soundscape (including the silence) and even the publicity images, all contribute to signal to the audience that this is a sombre piece of drama and it should be viewed accordingly. As a result, despite the best efforts of a strong cast, many of the laughs fall dreadfully flat, and in the words of the audience member I spoke with at the interval, it makes for pretty "hard going".

Director Andy Arnold and his creative team appear to have chosen to present the play in an earnest style similar to the Tron’s 2008 production of “The Drawer Boy” when I think it would have benefited from something much more akin to their recent flamboyant treatment of “Valhalla!”. After a long process of launching the Open.Stage contest, selecting the winning play and bringing it to the stage, it's a tragedy worthy of the Scottish football team that the victory has been lost by a last minute own goal.

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.

Sea and Land and Sky runs at the Tron until 23 October
Image by Richard Campbell used with permission

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"200th Play (Glasgow:Then & Now)" - October 2010

The simple fact that Oran Mor’s “A Play, A Pie and A Pint” series of lunchtime theatre has reached the milestone of 200 plays shows just how much it has been taken to the heart of Glasgow theatre lovers. And that this “200th Play” based on the theme of “Glasgow: Then & Now” incorporates short playlets from 33 different writers, with 9 directors and a cast of 30, shows similarly how much of an institution it has become within the Scottish theatrical community.

While there’s always the tendency to describe the wider Play, Pie, Pint concept as capable of being a bit ‘hit and miss’ there have been substantially more hits than misses over the years (and even the misses were likely hits for large parts of the audience). But in the 20 or so plays I saw last Wednesday there definitely seemed (to my taste at least) to be considerably more misses than hits. Perhaps our day got the short straw in the selection of plays performed (from the total of 33). Peter McDougal's “Language, Please” was one of many that just didn't work for me, and although many in the audience lapped it up, I found Andy Gray’s “Send in the Pies” (in the style of Judi Dench) excrutiating. And disappointingly some of the more entertaining segments such as Alan Bissett's “Wasp in a Wineglass” and Oliver Emanuel’s “Terra Incognita” could have been set just about anywhere. Most revealingly, there are a number of the plays listed in the programme that I know I did see, but have absolutely no recollection of them whatsoever. However, there were a couple of powerful and relevant pieces in the form of Maclennan’s own “Akuba” - the tale of a plantation 'worker', and Iain Robertson’s “SS Daphne”about a Glasgow tragedy I was unfamiliar with.

It’s difficult not to make unfavourable comparisons with “1 Million Tiny Plays About Britain” at the Citz back in June which hit the mark with just about every scene. And even although she didn’t actually see the show herself, Waldorf perceptively observed that it sounded more about The Event than The Content. While there is no doubt it provided a fitting tribute to David MacLennan’s achievements over the last six years – there’s no point in trying to pretend this was a showcase of “A Play, A Pie & A Pint” at its finest.

200th Play has completed its run at Oran Mor
Image by Leslie Black used with permission.

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"The Girl in the Yellow Dress" - October 2010

"The Girl in the Yellow Dress" featured in our early plans for this year's Edinburgh Fringe but we decided to wait and catch it in its post-Fringe run at the Citizens. Craig Higginson's tale set in Paris presents us with a French student of African origin who has arranged private language tuition with a young English woman but it quickly becomes clear that there's a lot going on under the surface of both Pierre and Celia. Over the course of five short acts we watch as their secrets are revealed and the balance of power shifts between the two.

I don't really want to give too much away about the plot and issues involved, but will comment that there were times I felt it opted for an unnecessarily sensationalist approach. But then, the beauty of this piece is as much in the telling as in the tale. I loved Higginson's use of language and Marianne Oldham and Nat Ramabulana really make the most of it - including Oldham delivering a marvellous audition piece for a female version of Sir Humphrey Appleby. The power of the writing and the performances was brought home to me when I found myself desperately pulling for a happy ending for these two damaged souls.

Watching the show in the Citizens Circle studio I was struck by how out of place it seems. I can't recall seeing such a fully realised set in the space before, and while the audience certainly benefits from getting up close to the action, in many respects it feels as if it would be more at home as a main stage production.

Waldorf wasn't 100% convinced that the narrative merited the obvious effort put into the dialogue, performances and staging; but for me this is a beautifully crafted and considered piece of theatre that would grace any stage.

The Girl in the Yellow Dress is a Co-production by the Citizens, Live Theatre (Newcastle) and The Market Theatre (South Africa)
It has now completed its run.
Image by Ruphin Coudyzer used with permission

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Friday, October 01, 2010

"The Bookie" - September 2010

Although I've made no secret of my wariness towards musicals, I've realised that I'm generally well disposed towards contemporary musicals - particularly those with a sense of humour. So, Cumbernauld Theatre's production of "The Bookie" with book and lyrics by Douglas Maxwell and original music by Aly MacRae was actually an attractive proposition. Before we get into the merits of the show we need to address some technical difficulties encountered during the performance, as everything that follows has to be considered with that in mind. We saw the show on Wednesday evening - its first night at the Citizens - and there were widespread failures of the radio mics used by every character. Many lines of dialogue were lost and the sound drifted in and out throughout several songs. It was bad enough that there should probably have been a decision taken at the interval to ditch the mics and improvise the staging to allow the actors to project to the audience (it wasn't a full house so no need to reach the circle or the back of the stalls). I'm sure attempts were made during the interval to resolve the problems, but if anything they got worse. And while we felt for the blameless performers, an on-stage or theatre door apology at the end wouldn't have gone amiss.

Due to the trying circumstances for the cast, and giving the show the benefit of the doubt that this was a one-off-never-to-be-repeated disaster, I don't think it would be fair of us to comment on individuals. I'll just say that every cast member had a moment or two that suggested that they are capable of delivering excellent performances.

But I can't make the same allowances for the show itself. I found the first half bordering on the woeful - to the extent that if I hadn't been writing about the show I may well have played the odds myself and flipped a coin as to whether or not to return after the interval. While there were several moments that raised a smile and one amusing set piece, for much of the time I found the dialogue clunky and unfunny. It's hard to reconcile the writing here with Maxwell's sparkling banter and tight narrative in "The Miracle Man". Indeed, I'm left pondering the significance of the fact that the show bears only a passing resemblance to its description in the advance publicity. And yet, despite its flaws, there's no refuting that this is a show with heart, and its conclusion is surprisingly satisfying.

It also benefits from several strong musical numbers shared amongst the cast - with "Hate You Most", "On The Surface" and "The One that Got Away" particularly effective (my song titles as no programme was available on the night). Ed Robson's direction provides some nice touches but at times the stage feels cluttered by two distinct playing areas, a 3 piece band and a cast of six. And while touring productions are often limited by space restrictions, here Kenny Miller's design also appears to be lacking any kind of budget.

But in all fairness, although the show didn't really work for us, and despite all the sound problems, it was generally well received by the audience. I even heard more than one audience member describe it as 'excellent', so be aware that this is definitely a show where your mileage may vary.

The Bookie runs at the Citizens until Saturday 2nd October and then continues on its tour of Scotland.
Image used with permission.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Coming Soon / Now Booking Autumn 2010

In what seems like a flash we’ve moved from Edinburgh Fringe time to the Autumn theatre season. We’ve had shows in mind since the brochures started dropping through our letterbox but we’ve only now got round to firming up our plans...

Over at the Citizens we’ll be seeing “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” following its well received run at the Traverse as part of the Fringe, and “A Clockwork Orange” is one of my favourite novels, so I'm always interested in seeing a new stage version. We're also planning to catch Cumbernauld Theatre’s touring musical “The Bookie” at the Citz. Having learned lessons from almost missing out on tickets to the Citizens Community Company’s “Wicked Christmas” last year (thanks Helen!) we booked as soon as they went on sale this year – and also for an evening with “The Wee Man & Muckers” whose appearances in the last couple of Community Company shows have been hysterical.

At the Tron I’m intrigued to see the production of the winning entry of their Open.Stage playwriting competition, “Sea and Land and Sky” based on the experiences of nurses in the Great War. Having missed out on getting tickets for its run at the Fringe and the preview at the Tron, it’s third time lucky for us with “Roadkill” when it goes back to the Tron in November. And although I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, I’m actually really looking forward to their panto - “Flo White”.

The new season of 'A Play, A Pie & A Pint' at Oran Mor is well underway but we haven't made it along yet due to holiday and work plans. But from October I'm hoping to be a frequent visitor and I'm really interested to see how their 200th play, made up of microplays from 40 writers, turns out from 4th to 9th October.

I've only just spotted the Traverse programme and although it doesn't immediately look like providing much for us this autumn, a collaboration between the Traverse and Grid Iron for a version of "Spring Awakening" adapted by Douglas Maxwell certainly got our attention.

And while we don’t plan on making return visits ourselves, it would be remiss of us not to highlight the return of a number of fantastic shows this Autumn. “Black Watch” returns once more, with a new cast, and tours Glasgow, Aberdeen, Belfast, London and a number of US cities. “Sunshine on Leith” is a delight for Proclaimers lovers and haters alike and returns on an extensive UK tour. “Midsummer (A Play With Songs)” is a magical piece of theatre – especially for anyone with any knowledge of Edinburgh and after charming audiences around the globe it arrives at the Tron at the end of October after another short run at the Traverse. Also at the Tron in October, rather appropriately, is "Poem in October" which I was really taken with when I saw it at Oran Mor last year. Vanishing Point revive their enchanting "Interiors" for a UK and international tour including Tramway in Glasgow and Eden Court, Inverness.

And finally, for those that enjoyed Vanishing Point's brilliantly divisive "The Beggar's Opera" last year, A Band Called Quinn have now released a soundtrack CD of tracks from the show (also available on iTunes). As spotted on Mark Fisher's theatreScotland site - thanks Mark, I've been waiting for this for months!

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Guys & Dolls" - September 2010

While we don’t often get along to Glasgow’s thriving amateur scene (largely due to my preference for contemporary writing and limited tolerance for musicals) we booked up for Theatre Guild Glasgow’s “Guys & Dolls” as a friend from my ‘day job’ is involved. And while we are happy to maintain our policy of treating amateur productions in the same manner as we do professional ones, Richard’s participation in one of the lead roles has given me a bit of a problem. I’d given plenty of thought about how I would deal with the situation if he wasn’t particularly good - and I don't think it would have caused any difficulties. And having seen him in a previous show I was at least confident he wouldn’t be awful. But I never considered how problematic it might be to review him if he was very good. And he is. Very, very, good. I wouldn’t want him (or anyone else) to think that his favourable review was undeserved. Waldorf & I discussed the possibility of her writing the show up to keep things at ‘arm’s length’, but we wanted to have it posted sometime this month, so you’ll just have to accept my assurance that he’s been given no favours. And as it happens, I think one of my comments is sure to upset him.

But back to the bigger picture. The show impressed from the moment we walked into the auditorium and caught sight of the stunning backdrop of period advertising signs (although we did notice that one element appeared to have been assembled upside down). Sliding shop frontages create street scenes while The Mission set is creatively realised; the underground gamblers den in the sewer looks fantastic and the Hot Box club is simple but effective. Add in some fantastic costumes, atmospheric lighting, live musical accompaniment and a large scale cast and this looks very much a million dollar Broadway show. But while we would never use ‘amateur’ in a derogatory manner there are moments in some of the dance and ensemble numbers when it feels just a little bit short on polish. However the two ‘showstoppers’ “Luck Be A Lady” and “Sit Down, You're Rockin' The Boat” were beautifully executed.

There was a bit of a range in quality of the performances in the ensemble roles and some were hindered at times by issues with the sound balance – particularly the trio of David Sturgeon, Cameron Lowe & Robert Kirkham as Nicely-Nicely, Benny & Rusty. So much so that David Sturgeon’s splendid rendition of “Sit Down” came as an unexpected revelation. The whole cast deserve credit for sustaining their accents throughout, but it's the four lead performers who really raise the show up a level.

In her early scenes I found Lisa-Jayne Rattray's cutesy 'New Yoik' accent as Miss Adelaide pushing the wrong buttons for me, but as the show progressed I was able to look beyond that personal irritation and recognise an impressive comedic and vocal performance. Neil Campbell also contributes much to the comic relief as crap game organiser and reluctant fiancé, Nathan Detroit – including some nicely worked elements of physical comedy. As Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah, Caroline Telfer displays fabulous vocals and endows her character with an air of earnestness without making the contrast with the character’s emotional side too jarring. As high stakes gambler, Sky Masterson, Richard Magowan personifies cool and has a genuine stage presence. He delivers his musical numbers with a powerful voice and subtly invests every line of song or dialogue with the character’s emotions.

But I’m afraid I’m risking Richard’s wrath when he returns to the office next week, as I have to provide an honest response and identify the elements that didn’t work quite as well. Should Caroline Telfer get the chance to read this, I’m afraid we found the slap Sarah delivered to Sky a bit “wishy washy” (to quote Waldorf). I’ve yet to see a ‘pulled’ slap deliver the intense reaction in an audience that a real one does, so, we suggest just giving him a proper slap that will echo round the theatre – he’s a big lad, he can take it. Sorry, Richard.

There were a couple of minor quibbles I had with the text of the show itself. I was left feeling a bit cheated that we didn’t get to witness the reunion between Sky & Sarah and there were a few American cultural gags/references that meant little to a Glasgow audience. My watch tells me this is a long show with a run time of just over 2 hours 30 minutes, but my mind knows that it absolutely flew in and the 90 minute first act went by in a flash. It also generated the strongest ‘buzz’ I’ve felt from an audience leaving a theatre for quite some time.

This was a thoroughly entertaining evening, even for someone who isn’t the greatest fan of musicals, and the RSAMD New Athenaeum theatre makes for a great home for it.

Guys & Dolls runs at the RSAMD until Saturday 18th September (including a Saturday matinee).
Image used with permission

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Silenced by the Guardian website (or 'How not to engage with social media')

The Guardian theatre blog currently has an article by Matt Trueman about the recent dispute between the Royal Opera House and blogger Intermezzo. Essentially the ROH got heavy handed over issues relating to the copyright of images and how they were credited, but took entirely the wrong approach by setting their Legal department loose. Trueman's article uses the dispute as an indication of how poor arts organisations can be at engaging with social media and advocates that they need to accept (and embrace) the reality that audiences have voices and are using them. Now here's where it gets interesting...

I posted a response to the article where I suggested it was unfair to criticise the wider arts community on the basis of this incident, which in all likelihood was down to an individual staff member being overzealous. If I may say so myself, it was a pretty reasoned response (you can judge for yourself below) and I gave numerous examples of Scottish theatres who have put mechanisms in place to harness audience views and also detailing instances of the theatrical community being willing to engage directly with our own site here at View From The Stalls. But shortly afterwards it was deleted from the article and replaced with: "This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted."

I'm afraid I did let the irony of the situation get to me a little and quickly posted another comment: "That's brilliant! Absolutely no idea why my post on this topic has been deleted but I love the irony of what appears to be over excessive moderation on a blog topic about organisations not being willing to give voices/engage with the online world/social media."

A few minutes later, and with absolutely no idea why my contribution could possibly have been deleted, I reposted my original comment:
-------------------
Lets try that again...
While the ROH affair is certainly an example of things going badly wrong, I think it's unfair to turn it into a wider criticism of arts company's treatment of social media. In truth it sounds like an individual staff member who has acted without looking at the bigger picture - I suspect if anyone outside their legal department had been consulted things would have been handled differently. I can only speak for Scotland but up here many of our theatres and companies make a genuine effort. For a few years now the Citizens has invited instant responses by text and audience members can leave comments on the website for each show. The Lyceum in Edinburgh has a well developed system of publishing audience reviews on their website - including many from both ends of the spectrum for the brilliantly divisive "The Beggar's Opera". The Tron have quoted our reviews at View From The Stalls in their season's brochure and a few years ago it was their then press officer who approached us to come along and see some of their productions after noticing we hadn't seen any of their recent shows. The Tron also involved the online world in voting for the winner of their Open.Stage writing competition. 'A Play, A Pie & A Pint' at Oran Mor even launched a weekly competition with a bottle of whisky for the ''best" review posted to their website.

And yes, much of this 'interest' in social media is about marketing rather than creating a dialogue, but there are times when it is about getting involved in the conversation. Over the four years we've been running the site we've had some fascinating contributions posted as 'heckles' to our reviews. Matthew Lenton, director of Vanishing Point's "The Beggar's Opera" responded to our review prompting an extensive discussion involving many others; we've had a writer object to what he perceived as our "lack of effort" in understanding his play; the National Theatre of Scotland responded when we questioned their priorities; and we've even had a director and actor falling out over how we had interpreted their show. And from smaller companies, youth and amateur theatre we get a lot of e-mails thanking us for looking beyond the interests of the 'traditional media' and letting us know the value (or otherwise) of our feedback to them.

We've been amazed by how quickly we were accepted as a website worthy of interest, and although we have a policy of declining press tickets they were quickly offered by many theatres/companies. Some departments of the big arts institutions may have some staff members who don't "get it", but my experience is that the vast majority of those working in theatre are more than willing to engage with their audiences through social media.
www.viewfromthestalls.co.uk
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...which was very quickly deleted, along with my post noting the irony of the situation, and I've now had my posting on the site set to pre-moderated! Seriously?

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

"The Chooky Brae" - September 2010

Two years have passed in Stewarton since we last met Norma Gordon. She and her 18 month old son are living with her divorced parents (her father having returned home after suffering a stroke) and her university drop out brother Barry. Her boyfriend Trevor has got himself stuck overnight in London after a job interview and his brother Rab, is on his way over for a family dinner. Christmas Dinner.

DC Jackson's latest comedy is very much in the same vein as its predecessors - "The Wall" & "The Ducky". There's observational humour that any stand-up would be proud of, sparky banter between characters and a real sense of heart. Some of the youthful energy of the previous shows has been replaced with a more world-weary tone as the characters have grown up and the introduction of Norma and Barry's parents provides a new perspective and counterpoint.

I have to confess that I found some of the early scenes uncomfortable, feeling some of the humour misjudged, and my initial reaction to a plot revelation was that it was uninspired and tired. And yet on reflection, it's a revelation that cleverly throws a new light on those earlier scenes and alleviated any misgivings. The Christmas setting works well in creating the required element of confinement and family tension, but it does feel a little odd to be watching it in September.

Borderline have put together another fantastic cast, with Sally Reid once again making a strong case for Norma Gordon as an icon of contemporary Scottish theatrical comedy. Reid and Scott Hoatson make Norma and Barry's sibling relationship entirely believable while Jordan Young provides most of the laughs as former(?) wannabee 'bam' Rab. Stewart Porter and Anita Vettesse impress as the parents, particularly so considering that they are tasked with what are mainly straight roles in a comedy.

"The Chooky Brae" is a worthy successor to the previous installments of his 'Stewarton Trilogy', but doesn't quite deliver the conclusion its characters deserve - particularly Michelle who is sidelined out of town for this one. But then, hopefully this will turn out to be a 'trilogy' in the "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" sense of the word.

The Chooky Brae runs at the Tron until Satuday 11th September then tours.
Image by John Johnston Photography used with permission.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Dildon't" - Edinburgh Fringe 2010

A show set in and around a sex shop is a little further into the Comedy section of the Fringe programme than we normally like to delve. But an unspoken promise to see the first show who sent us a press release after the programme launch resulted in Casual Violence's "Dildon't" being added to our plans. And although a little lacking in subtlety for my taste, it illustrated perfectly that great performances can turn up in the most unexpected of places.

While there were plenty of sex toy based gags in the script, there's actually little to offend and much of the humour is of the daft rather than dark variety. However, I have to confess to being a little uncomfortable with the show's use of Rose West as a plot device. There are plenty of genuine laughs here, including the musical number 'Dead Girls Don't Say No', but despite a sell-out audience the small size of the venue seemed to limit any momentum. In a bigger venue I could see this really going down a storm.

The ensemble cast all perform well, but it's Luke Booys as independent dealer Axl and Dino Kazamia as Detective Glasseye who have the greatest impact. Booys creates an electric relationship with the audience through a mix of chumminess and fear of interaction - and it's the best performance of that nature I've seen for a long time. Similarly, Kazamia does a sterling job of engaging the audience and sells some lines that could otherwise be groanworthy - some of them twice. And it's a brave man who is willing to risk the potential rage of an audience fairly early into their night out by throwing a cheese sandwich into their midst.

This is a show without pretensions, and it succeeds in delivering an amusing hour of entertainment.

Dildon't has completed its run at the Spaces on the Mile.
Image used with permission

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Monday, August 23, 2010

"The Typhoid Marys" - Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Phil Tong's play dovetails the parallel tales of the original 'Typhoid Mary', Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant to the US in the early 1900s and a group of women identified as typhoid carriers and held in isolation in London. It's a clever technique as it highlights the genuine dilemma faced by the authorities - particularly in the days before antibiotics.

The central cast are outstanding, with Maddie Dempsey giving a show carrying performance as Mary Mallon that gives her a personality beyond her circumstances. Charlotte Duke as chef's wife May, Millie Chapman as young mother Florence and Elise Wilkinson as teacher Mary Brooks bring three of the London internees vividly and movingly to life.

They are supported by a strong ensemble cast, although the decision to play some aspects for comic relief seems misjudged given the general tone of the piece. And while not out of place as such, and certainly well performed, the incorporation of several dance segments damages the show's pacing. Although in fairness, that's possibly my own lack of appreciation of dance in general colouring my judgement.

Tong's treatment of a clearly emotive issue is sympathetic to all those involved, and while a stance is taken on society's failure of the women in later years, there's understanding shown for those responsible. With several plot elements to draw together there is a serious risk of things feeling disjointed, yet Tong's direction moves deftly from woman to woman while clearly establishing every character.

City of London Freemen's School have brought a production to Edinburgh that they can be rightly proud of. And for those of you new to View From The Stalls, please bear in mind that we maintain a policy of considering all student, youth, amateur and community theatre in the same manner as we do any professional performance - to do otherwise would be patronising to those involved.

The Typhoid Marys has now completed its run at Quaker Meeting House.
Image by Phil Tong used with permission.

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"Speechless" - Edinburgh Fringe 2010

This was Waldorf's choice on the basis of Sherman Cymru's "Deep Cut" being her highlight of 2008's Fringe, and with ticket availability at a premium we made a special trip through to catch this one at the Traverse. With that in mind, it's tempting to put our disappointment down to high expectations, but in truth I think it just wasn't very good.

Linda Brogan and Polly Teale's play features the true story of twin girls who refused to communicate with the outside world as they grew up in early 1980s Britain. The discovery that it was based on a book, 'The Silent Twins' by Marjorie Wallace, came as no surprise once I had seen it - it feels very much like a selection of chapters. And not even the best ones - a quick read of the Wikipedia article on the twins shows just how much more interesting this could have been.

There's nothing wrong with the performances, especially Demi Oyediran and Natasha Gordon who commit fully to their roles as June and Jennifer, but the central element of the girls' communication, in what is essentially their own language, is poorly conveyed. When alone, the audience see them communicating freely in perfect English and it seems as if they are just refusing to relate to others - it's only late on in the play it becomes clear that they are, in fact, unable to communicate. Surely it would have been better to isolate the girls from the audience by showing them clearly communicating with each other - just not in a way we could understand?

The play touches on racial tensions and awakening sexuality at times but it's difficult to see this as anything other than a very personal and unique set of circumstances. And given their peripheral nature in the tale as told here, the portrayal of the sex scenes seems unnecessarily gratuitous.

In any work based on 'true life' elements, accuracy is everything. Yes, poetic licence can be deployed, but only within the established framework. It's all too easy for anachronisms to creep in and shatter the audience's confidence in the illusion of truth. And I'm afraid here the inclusion of Caller ID or '1471' as a plot point in a scene set in the early-mid 1980s when it wasn't introduced until 1994 is unforgivable and cast doubt on exactly how much research investigation was undertaken into less easily verifiable matters.

I'm afraid it's difficult for me to view this as anything other than a good idea for a play thwarted by a series of bad choices that were made along the way - both in deciding which elements of the girl's story to focus on and in how to convey their isolation to the audience.

Speechless is a co production between Shared Experience & Sherman Cymru and runs at the Traverse until Sunday 29th August.
Image by Robert Day used with permission

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"Memory Cells" - Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Forgive me for being more than a little vague about this show, but it 's definitely a show that's best seen without knowing too much about it. If you are considering seeing it all you need to know is that it is a quality piece of theatre with two great performances. If you've already seen it, and just want to compare notes then feel free to read on...

Seriously, if you haven't seen the show yet but are planning to, just stop reading now.

Emily Taaffe excels at bringing captive Cora back to life as the story unwinds in reverse. The transformation is almost unbelievable given that there's no time off stage for physical assistance - although I think some clever lighting helped. John Stahl as her captor doesn't face quite the same challenge but impresses with a chilling performance that encompasses tenderness and brutality.

Writer Louise Welsh has carefully crafted the piece to gradually reveal its secrets and for the most part these are well executed verbally, however, some of the prop based time markers didn't seem to be used as effectively as they might have been resulting in the confusion lasting longer than perhaps necessary. But then, having seen a production of the play last year I went into this with very different eyes from most others, so I may not be best placed to judge. For those encountering the play for the first time, this is undoubtedly a striking and memorable piece of theatre.

Memory Cells runs at 5:20pm daily until 30th August (excluding the 24th) at the Pleasancedome
Image used with permission.

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"2020 Vision" - Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Perhaps "2020 Vision" has suffered from being pared down to fit a tight timeslot, or perhaps the "devised by the company" credit has left them all too closely involved to see it from the view of an audience member. Either way, the result is that we're left feeling that a vital piece of the jigsaw is missing. However, while the structure of the show may be problematic, it features some absolutely exquisite moments.

Set in a call centre after a catastrophic event has trapped the staff inside, the action intercuts between several timeframes including previous events in the office and what appear to be flashbacks of individual characters. The time switches between periods in the office are well handled but the flashbacks (initiated by a female character credited as "The Onlooker") left me confused and frustrated. Have they died in the disaster? Are these the moments when their lives flashed in front of their eyes when they thought they were about to die? What does the obviously 'meaningful' removal of their ties actually mean? How is one character seemingly able to reject his vision?

But this conceit that hurts the play, also provides its most powerful moments. The flashback sequences are beautifully directed as we see each character regress while other cast members provide voices from the darkness for unseen characters. David Peel's portrayal of Adam as he re-experiences abuse from his childhood is traumatic to watch, while Emily Thornton's discussion with her parents about being pregnant is immensely moving. Back in the 'future', the whole cast deliver excellent performances with Stuart Davies a stand out as Bill who finds dealing with the calls particularly distressing.

The show makes its point forcefully about companies that make money out of the misery of others, but some of the religious discussion felt a little heavy handed. There are several nice nods to futuristic technology such as embedded chips and overhead drones but little discussion of their significance other than as convenient plot elements. There's also a sense of the show running out of steam and bringing things to a swift conclusion when I felt like I wanted a less rushed explanation of their company's role in events.

Nevertheless, this is an ambitious, stylish and clever show and is more than enough to make sure I add Paper Zoo to my list of companies to look out for in next year's Fringe progamme.

2020 Vision has now completed its run at Augustines
Image used with permission

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

"Wild Allegations" - Edinburgh Fringe 2010

In Edinburgh University Theatre Company's "Wild Allegations", Matthew John Curtis is a well known sitcom actor who has alienated both his girlfriend Theo and brother Alex to the extent that they are working with a journalist to expose his failings to his adoring public. It's almost the perfect Fringe show - original, funny, fast paced, well performed and creatively directed. All it lacks is an ending that delivers the punch it deserves.


Ed Sheridan plays Curtis brilliantly, both for laughs as an actor of somewhat limited talent (think Joey from "Friends") and in his more passionate scenes as a man who wants to break out of the mould he has created for himself. As Alex, Paul Brotherston is hugely engaging and connects instantly with the audience. Some of the moments the two share are comedy gold and phenomenally well executed. Alexandra Wetherell gives a compelling performance as Theo and succeeds in making the character sympathetic despite her dubious actions. The cast is completed with impressive supporting performances from Llinos Henry as journalist Caitlyn and Sophie Pemberton and Tom Watret in numerous roles.

The writing from David K Barnes and David Leon is of a very high quality, ensuring that the many laughs are not at the expense of characterisation. Indeed, the three central characters are far more emotionally complex than we have any right to expect in a show of this length. And it's a testament to the strength of the writing that the ending feels unsatisfying - the audience is invested in the characters to the extent that we need a big finish for them. Barnes and Leon also share a directing credit and give the piece a very striking look and feel, although perhaps a more objective director may have cut a cinema scene whose payoff doesn't justify it's place in the production.

But any flaws do little damage to the whole - this is unquestionably a fantastically enjoyable way to spend an hour. And while we don't normally comment on ticket prices, I doubt you'll see anything better than this for £5.

Wild Allegations runs at Bedlam daily at 1pm until Saturday 28th August
Image by Camille Acosta used with permission.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Alan Cumming - I Bought a Blue Car Today" - Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Much as he had when we saw him in the lead role of the National Theatre of Scotland’s “The Bacchae” , Alan Cumming held the audience in the palm of his hand on Friday night. There can be few performers at the Fringe this year to rival Cumming for star status – Tony award winner, Hollywood star, recurring role in a successful US TV show, not to mention Edinburgh Fringe legend as one half of “Victor & Barry”. He may have been touring his cabaret show “I Bought a Blue Car Today” around the globe, but this version had a very Edinburgh flavour and after an energetic 90 minute performance the audience welcomed him back as one of their own.

Delivering some great vocals, he treated the audience to renditions of some of his favourite musical numbers complemented by several songs, some self-penned, which appeared aimed at securing a place as the rightful heir to the Big Yin as king of comedy songs. Personally I’d have liked to have seen a couple of better known songs but as it’s a very personal show it’s only fair that the choices are Cumming’s own. And there’s enough on show here to suggest that maybe, some day, we’ll see a full scale musical penned by Cumming and his musical director and collaborator Lance Horne.

Anyway, we were there as much for the patter as the singing, and there was no disappointment in that respect. Despite his protests to the contrary, Cumming appears as comfortable on stage as any stand-up and has a range of amusing anecdotes with which he entertains us. He’s also clearly still a bit of a political firebrand and doesn’t shy away from commenting on political matters.

He playfully teases us about whether or not he will return to the stage for an encore and then gives a rendition of Victor & Barry’s ‘Edinburgh Festival Song’ to the delight of the audience. And then as he films the audience on his own camera during the final number we realise he’s perhaps having every bit as much fun tonight as we are.

A genuine star who comes over as entirely unaffected by his status, and who hasn’t forgotten where he came from. Credit is also due to Cumming and the Assembly team for keeping prices to a very reasonable £20.

I Bought a Blue Car Today has now completed its run.
Image by Ned Stresen Reuter used with permission

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

"The Apprentice" - Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Nonsense Room have been part of our Fringe-going since 2006 and have produced delightful shows year after year. Part of the attraction is their venue, the stunning Rosslyn Chapel, and never more so than this year where they revive their show based on the chapel itself. Theatre just doesn't get any more site specific than this.

The legend goes that an apprentice stonemason completed an intricately carved pillar with a design that came to him in a dream while the master mason was abroad seeking inspiration. As he had intended to carve the pillar himself, the master mason was somewhat less than pleased on his return. Writer Simon Beattie has filled in the gaps with a tragic love story that left me feeling how I always think I should feel when watching Romeo & Juliet - but never do. The sense of being made to choose between love and loyalty really hits home here, and unlike Shakespeare's pairing there's no sense Beattie's tragic couple have brought this on themselves. However, this emphasis on the tragedy leaves little room for the humour we've become used to in Nonsense Room's shows and Waldorf in particular missed the lighter tone.

But for me, the accomplished script and performances more than made up for the required shift in our expectations - and in truth as we knew the legend we should have been prepared for something rather darker. As the apprentice mason, Marcus, Rhys Teare-Williams has to carry much of the show on his shoulders and makes an impressive job of it. Colin Moncrieff delivers a remarkably intense performance as Vincenzo the master mason while Alison Macfarlane makes Megan's relationship with Marcus charmingly believable. Beattie's dialogue and fine performances from James Bryce and Catherine Owen as Sir William and Lady Sinclair make their characters three dimensional and elevate them beyond the plot devices they could easily have been.

There are some lovely moments of direction from Bruce Strachan - particularly a dance sequence by Marcus and Megan and the final confrontation between master and apprentice. The accompanying musical score adds much to the production and of course, the setting is sublime.

I'm unsure if 'enjoyable' is quite the right word for such a sad show, but it's certainly a beautiful and moving piece of theatre.

The Apprentice runs at Rosslyn Chapel in Roslin until Thursday 19th August
Please note that Roslin is some distance outside of Edinburgh city centre and make appropriate travel arrangements.
Image by Peter Searle used with permission.

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

"Miles Jupp: Fibber in the Heat" - Edinburgh Fringe 2010

As confirmed theatre lovers we're a little tentative about entering the comedy section of the Fringe programme. But with several serious and dark shows in our plans we wanted to ensure we had a bit of fun as well. As we don't follow the stand-up circuit, choosing can be a risky business - especially as we're keen to avoid any audience interaction. However, thanks to a ticket offer in Scotland on Sunday we had the chance to see a show without concerns of wasting our cash. Miles Jupp's tale of blagging his way onto the press corps for an England cricket tour fitted our timeframe, seemed suitably unthreatening, and fortunately proved to be genuinely funny.

Jupp makes for an amiable host and his tale, while more interesting to cricket fans, is perfectly accessible to those like us with only a passing knowledge of the game's bigger personalities. He's also very self deprecating and his gentle humour makes the hour fly past. Despite any disapproval I may have felt of attempting to pull off such a charade, Jupp quickly had me onside and willing him to succeed.

I suspect any serious stand up fans will find the show too tame for their taste but as an engaging storyteller Miles Jupp provides a delightfully entertaining and risk free evening.

Miles Jupp: Fibber in the Heat (A Cricket Tale) runs at 8pm at Gilded Balloon Teviot until August 29th (not 16th)
Image used with permission

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"Sub Rosa" - Edinburgh Fringe 2010

Sub Rosa draws audiences into the murky world of music hall troupes and artist exploitation at the Winter Palace theatre. The story of young Flora McIvor’s revolution against cruel theatre manager Mr Hunter unfolds gradually as we move from room to room encountering members of the company. Pay close attention as seemingly throwaway remarks may take on huge significance before the end.

The six strong cast of Adam McNamara, Angela Darcy, Isabelle Joss, Benny Young, Isabella Jarrett and Clare Dargo give compelling performances and with the audience often only inches a genuine connection can be created. It’s unfair of me to single out one performance above the others but Jarrett's steel eyed callousness was chilling beyond belief.

David Leddy's tale is gruesome in the extreme and there are times since the show I've wished it was a little less unforgettable. In many ways the show is a puzzle and while the outcome of the artists' rebellion is eventually revealed to us, other aspects are left very much for the audience to piece together. Technically the show is almost flawless - the only problem we encountered were a couple of occasions where views of the performers were restricted if you were unfortunate enough to have a tall person in front of you. There are several sets of audiences each night and many of these will be in the venue simultaneously - yet the way we are moved around by our guides ensures that we feel as though our group is in an otherwise empty space.

The script has been tweaked from the production that we adored at the Citizens last year to take account of its new location in a Masonic Lodge but while lighting and sound help to create an intense atmosphere, the venue simply can’t accommodate some of the most striking visuals from that earlier show. In its new home Sub Rosa is unquestionably a marvellous piece of theatre – but it remains a piece of theatre. The previous incarnation in the backstage spaces at the Citz was so utterly immersive that it felt like we were watching the past unfold in front of our eyes.

But while it may have lost a little bit of magic in the move to Edinburgh, for anyone who loves theatre, Sub Rosa will probably still be the best thing they see at the Fringe this year.

David Leddy's Sub Rosa is a Fire Exit production in association with the Citizens Theatre. The show runs several times each night until 30th August. Audiences meet at New Town Theatre at 96 George Street before walking to the venue.
Image by Douglas McBride used with permission.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

"Jacobite Country" - Edinburgh Fringe 2010

It was very tempting for this review to simply read "If you can't say something nice..." but we like to think that we're better than that. So I will try to convey how bad this was - although I suspect 'Option 1' may have been kinder.

Over the four years we've been writing reviews at View From The Stalls we've seen over 300 shows and Jacobite Country is undoubtedly in the bottom five. It is painful to watch and has no redeeming qualities.

Set in a mental institution in the Scottish highlands we are introduced to Haggis McSporran (Sarah Haworth) who fancies himself as a stand up comic and local bad lad Craitur Face (Fiona Morrison). The cast is completed by Annie Grace as Uncle Angus and Mairi Morrison in a number of roles. The observant amongst you may have picked up on the fact that 3 of these male characters are portrayed by female actors - and one of Mairi Morrison's roles is also male. Now, I have no problem with cross-gender casting and it can often bring a new angle to a play, but this is simply bizarre. There is no obvious rationale behind it and it would seem straightforward enough if the company wished to use a female cast to rework the text a little. And what makes it worse is that another of Mairi Morrison's characters appears to be a female nurse - named Eddy.

McSporran's stand up routines are pretty awful but I'm prepared to give writer Henry Adam the benefit of the doubt that this was intentional - however this makes it no less painful for the audience. The only moment during the whole play that got a laugh out of me was a line about the previous comic persona of a Scottish comedian who made it big in the States - a gag I'm certain flew over the heads of at least 90% of the audience.

What follows appears to be intended as a comic romp with Haggis and Craitur Face on the run - including encounters with Craitur's gun-totting, mobster granny and a showbiz agent. We also get a subplot about Uncle Angus and his nationalist extremist campaign. Now some of these scenes may be delusions but I was long past caring by this point - as were many others in the audience. I'd put the initial audience at around 30 and we lost our first two after twenty minutes, and then another one around an hour, quickly followed by another two. There may have been other escapees sitting further back that I didn't notice and there were at least two 'sleepers'.

To be fair to the cast, there's nothing wrong with their performances. It's just that, with the exception of a couple of pointed lines about Scottish identity, the whole thing is drivel. I haven't the faintest idea what made writer Henry Adam, director Matthew Zajac and Dogstar Theatre decide to mount this production.

The one saving grace of the afternoon is that although we have a policy of not accepting press tickets we're happy to take advantage of offers open to the general public - so my ticket was free courtesy of an offer in the Scotland on Sunday newspaper.

I hate that I've had to write such a negative review and I hate the fact it may be to the detriment of a small theatre company. So I'll just say this... If you were considering seeing "Jacobite Country" - don't. Instead go and see Dogstar Theatre's other show at this year's Fringe - "The Tailor of Inverness". It's a fantastic piece of theatre which we enjoyed immensely last year.

Jacobite Country runs at Udderbelly Pasture until 30th August (not the 16th)
The Tailor of Inverness runs at Udderbelly Pasture until 30th August (not the 16th)
Image used with permission.

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