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


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.


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


"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.


"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


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.