Monday, October 24, 2011

"Saturday Night" - October 2011

Back in 2009 Vanishing Point gave us a very different theatre experience with "Interiors" - a show where all the action took place behind a glass wall which allowed the audience to see, but not hear, the characters. "Saturday Night" pushes the concept further - we see more (three rooms instead of one) but hear less (there's no external voiceover this time round) - and the events are much more surreal. What hasn't changed is the way it absolutely captivates an audience.

"Saturday Night" makes significant demands on the attention of its audience as they work out what to take from the silent interactions on stage - often in more than one room simultaneously. But all that effort doesn't go unrewarded.

As the show is in part a puzzle, and in part open to interpretation, I'm not going to talk about the characters or the 'plot' - other than to praise what is a fine acting ensemble. I'll also add that it features the most oppressive sense of foreboding I've felt in the theatre for a long time - I'm not sure I'd want to see a Vanishing Point show where their main aim was to scare an audience. That's a lie. I'd love to see that show.

So, and let me be clear about this, I thought this was a spellbinding and wonderfully entertaining piece of theatre. And in many ways that's where this post should end. My problem is that I'm not convinced the show 'does exactly what it says on the tin' or in this case, in the programme notes. The programme and publicity material suggest they were aiming to create a show where the audience would use their imagination to interpret what they saw on stage, and I don't think that was achieved to any great extent. The performances are so well crafted that there's rarely much room for interpretation in individual moments. Yes, there are some details that require leaps of imagination (did I see a pizza being ordered by phone after it had already arrived?) but the central narrative is really only open to two possibilities. You either 'get it' or you don't . And if you don't, there aren't really (m)any alternatives that an imagination, however vivid, is likely to come up with. Leaving an audience divided ino those who 'got it' and those left thinking "what the hell was that?". And while the vast majority of those sitting around me in the theatre definitely 'got it', there were a noticeable minority who really didn't. I'm fine with that - I'm just not sure director Matthew Lenton and the Vanishing Point team would be.

Saturday Night completes its tour this week with dates at Eden Court, Inverness on 26th/27th October and at the Traverse, Edinburgh on 29th/30th.
Saturday Night is a co-production between Vanishing Point, Tramway, Teatro Nacional São João, Centro Cultural Vila Flor - Teatro Oficina, Sao Luiz Teatro Municipal.
Image by Joao Tuna/TNSJ used with permission.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

"Juicy Fruits" - October 2011

It's been quite a while since I last made it along to Oran Mor's "A Play, A Pie & A Pint" lunchtime shows - and if I'm honest waiting one more week might not have been a bad idea. It's never a good sign when it's twenty minutes in and I'm glancing at my watch.

Leo Butler's play throws together two old friends meeting up for the first time in several years - Lorna is struggling as a new mum and Nina's finding it difficult to readjust to 'normality' after spending time saving the Orang Utans. But could there just possibly be more than meets the eye to Nina's decision to come home? Yawn. It's all a bit by-the-numbers, and even a coup-de-theatre that brilliantly moves the action to the jungle can't save the show.

There are a few nice barbs thrown about between the friends, and Clare Waugh makes Lorna a believable anchor in what is otherwise a pretty 'out there' show. Denise Hoey avoids making Nina 'Central Casting cooky' and instead gives her an edge that creates just enough doubt that she intends to harm, rather than simply wake Lorna's baby when she shakes his buggy. But there are too many gaps in their character's motivations to allow us to relate to their choices.

In fairness, others seemed to enjoy it more than I did, but at times I do feel the Play, Pie, Pint audiences can be generous to a fault.

Juicy Fruits is a co-production with Paines Plough. It runs at Oran Mor until Saturday 22nd October before visiting Edinburgh's Traverse, Manchester Royal Exchange & Coventry's Belgrade Theatre.
Image by Leslie Black Photography used with permission

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"Days of Wine and Roses" - October 2011

At a time when the role of alcohol in Scottish society is under increased scrutiny, the Tron & Theatre Jezebel deliver a devastating reminder of its impact on an individual level. So much so, that I wouldn't be surprised if the Tron notice a dip in post-show takings at the bar - on schoolnights at least.

The typical 'stage drunk' played for comic effect is almost totally absent in director Kenny Miller's production of Owen McCafferty's version of JP Miller's original play - we witness far more of the 'morning afters' than the 'night befores'. With a two hour runtime this could easily become heavy going for the audience. But the initial charm of the young Belfast couple goes a long way and Keith Fleming and Sally Reid's performances are compelling as Donal and Mona's lives fall apart.

Kenny Miller's direction effectively evokes time and location, but the pacing may have benefited from moving the interval back a scene or two. On paper, it would be tempting to dismiss the play's recurring use of racing great 'Arkle' as a timeline for the couple's relationship as faintly ridiculous, but Fleming's delivery exudes so much love and belief in the horse that it adds greatly to his connection with the audience.

I can't pretend that this is a fun night out, but it is unquestionably serious theatre of the highest quality.

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.

We'd also like to mention how impressed we were with the way the Tron front of house staff dealt promptly, professionally and sensitively with a medical emergency in the audience shortly before the start of the show.

Days of Wine and Roses runs at the Tron until 29th October
Image by John Johnston used with permission

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Getting back on the theatrical (pantomime?) horse...

After having our Fringe plans for the last week of August decimated by coming down with a nasty bug/cold/manflu (delete as applicable / perm any 2 from 3), we were both left feeling under the weather for the entirety of September. And nodding off most nights before 9pm wasn't exactly conducive to our theatre plans.

But we've finally got our energy and enthusiasm back and we'll have a few shows to post about in the next week or so.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Legally Blonde - The Musical" (UK Tour) - September 2011

We often enjoy a trip to a musical on our occasional visits to London, but we tend to be wary about the touring versions of the shows. We've always been worried that they are scaled down versions with a second string cast, squeezed into spaces they weren't really designed for. Legally Blonde may just have changed that.

Its songs didn't leave us rushing home to buy the soundtrack CD, some of the lyrics may be of questionable quality, and the 'plot' is wafer thin. But none of that matters when it explodes with such energy, its cast are top class, and the whole show is fun - with an enormous pink and fluffy capital F.

Faye Brookes gives an impressive vocal performance, lighting up the stage as Elle and along with Iwan Lewis' Emmett ensures that the audience is cheering for the inevitable happy ending. Liz McLarnon is one of the production's main attractions and although her stage time as Paulette is fairly limited, she makes every moment count. A special mention also for Hannah Grover as fitness guru Brooke Wyndham and the ensemble for the magnificent choreography in "Whipped Into Shape" which is undoubtedly the greatest dance number I've seen in any show. And of course they are all upstaged by the dogs (and Waldorf says 'and the thighs').

Legally Blonde - The Musical on Tour runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse until the 17th of September and then continues on a national tour including Birmingham, Manchester, Belfast and Aberdeen

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"David Leddy's Untitled Love Story" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

It's been almost two weeks since we saw the show, but I've wanted to allow some time to reflect on it. The question isn't whether it worked for me or not - it didn't. What I've been desperately trying to do is work out why it didn't work for me. And I'm not sure I'm any closer to doing that...

David Leddy has shown before in "Sub Rosa" and "White Tea" that he can transport an audience a century into the past or halfway across the planet , but "Untitled Love Story" never gave me any sense of Venice. Yes, there are references to the church of Santa Maria della Salute and the Grand Canal but there was no sense of time or space created. Venice should have been the show's fifth character, yet its appearances are only fleeting.

The show's guided meditation elements break up an already fractured narrative and are an acquired taste. One, I'm afraid I grew tired of long before acquiring. Of course, that's my problem and not the show's, but I doubt I was alone in the audience. What I can't fault are the performances from Keith Fleming, Robin Laing, Adura Onoshile and Morag Stark - yet I cared so little about their characters that only Laing's "Priest" managed to retain my interest to the end.

And now I've got a problem. Because I'm not confident enough in my recollection of the show to comment much further. But then, perhaps that speaks more strongly about it than anything I could say.

David Leddy's Untitled Love Story runs at St Georges West until Monday 29th August.
Image by Tim Morozzo used with permission

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"Remember This" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

For a variety of reasons (some relating to the play and some due to an on-coming head cold) I'll keep this one short and sweet. Written by Florence Vincent and Lizzie Bourne, "Remember This" is an engaging show with a well judged balance of light and dark. Annie Hardy's direction deftly handles a number of potential hazards, if perhaps signposting things from a little too early on. Daisy Badger gives a well crafted and considered performance as Helen while Paul Brotherston takes a more natural approach and brilliantly succeeds in making Nick the most believable character I've seen at the Fringe this year. In a supporting but crucial role, Emma Friedman-Cohen is tasked with a number of scenes that could make or break the show and sells them beautifully every time.

The Fringe is full of small scale personal dramas; few will pack the emotional punch of "Remember This"

Lastly, a bit of housekeeping. We have a policy of not accepting press tickets, but we're happy to take advantage of any offers available to the general public, and in this case I received a free ticket through the Theatre Ninjas website.

Remember This runs at Bedlam until Saturday 27th August
Image by Dan Harris used with permission

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"Viewless" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

There's a significant disconnect between the show and its blurb in the programme. What sounds like a fairly subtle, if humourous, take on witness protection is in fact an absurd comedy set in a fantastical realm a la Wonderland / Dissocia / Neverwhere (choose your own pop culture reference). Sometimes daft (funny); sometimes daft (stupid). Often funny (ha ha); occasionally funny (odd). Always entertaining. Ultimately disappointing.

There are some great set piece moments, but too often they feel like they have been bolted-on to get a laugh and lack any relevance to rest of the show. When it does focus the audience attention on the impact being placed in witness protection has on a person, it only serves to highlight wasted opportunities elsewhere.

Fortunately, the production has plenty of tricks up its sleeve to distract from its failings in the shape of superb sound and video effects. It also benefits greatly from three fine performances from Finn Den Hertog, Robbie Jack and Richard Addison.

"Viewless" may fail to explore the depths its subject deserves, but if you accept it for what it is, it will reward you with a slick and polished hour of entertainment.

Viewless runs at Hill Street Theatre until 29th August (not 24th)
Image used with permission

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Monday, August 22, 2011

"Hairy Maclary" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

We tend not to review children's shows for the simple reason of not having ready access to small people. However a day out with some friends, who happen to have an almost 3 year old* and a 5 year old, gave us the perfect excuse to visit Nonsenseroom Productions's Hairy Maclary. As unashamed fans of their productions for an older audience we were keen to see what they produced for the wee ones.

I think the show can be best summed up with some quotes from the target audience. "Excellent" said the 5 year old (although worryingly he did want to know after the show if they were real dogs - they're not), and our almost 3 year old* visitor wanted to "take the doggies home". Her mum is considering a repeat visit if it tours near her.

At an hour long we had wondered how well it would hold the attention of both big and small but there are no worries on that front. Nonsenseroom have put together a show that moves at a nice pace, intertwining 4 or so of the tales with songs and audience participation so there's always something new for the little ones to look at or be involved with. For our two guests there was rapt attention - even sitting near the back of the large auditorium. For the grown ups there's no attempt to work at two different levels, it's very much a children's show; but helping the little ones join in with the actions and songs certainly brings out your inner child. Apparently I can pant well...

Carrie Mancini and Mat Urey, as the main human characters, do a great job keeping control of an audience that certainly isn't into sitting quietly. Audience interaction is built in to give them plenty of chances to release that noise in a (semi)controlled manner. The 'canine' cast bound around the stage with such energy that makes you tired just watching them and the songs and music are catchy enough to earworm you for the rest of the day. It helps that most of the children and their adults are familiar with the books and the characters from countless bedtime retellings. I think the man behind me had them all memorised.

My one criticism would be the size/type of venue. Although it's a nice 'proper' theatre with good raking we had the children on our knees for whole show, as if they'd been in their own seats visibility would definitely have been a problem. I may be being too harsh here as our children had no problem joining in, but I did feel they would have benefited from being a little closer to the action.

And I can't stop singing "Hairy Maclary...from Donaldson's Dairy".

*Yes we know that makes her two, but she'd give us into trouble for not pointing out that she's very nearly three, apparently you want to be older when you're that age. And she's scary when she's grumpy.

Hairy Maclary has completed its run at the Fringe but now begins an extensive tour including London and locations around the UK.
Image used with permission

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Handling Bach" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

Forget any assumptions you may have made about a play based on a fictional account of a meeting between composers Handel and Bach. A meeting that never happened. The most important thing you need to know is that Paul Barz's play (translated by David Bryer) is a comedy. And a very funny one at that. Music lovers will undoubtedly get more out of the piece, but we know even less about music than we do about theatre, and we enjoyed this immensely. Having had the misfortune to encounter the stage version of "Yes, Prime Minister" recently, it was a joy to see something here that approaches the charm and wit of the original TV series. Think of Handel as Sir Humphrey, Bach as Jim Hacker with Handel's deadpan servant Schmidt as Bernard and you'll get an idea of the show's tone.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss it as inconsequential gentle humour. For part of the second act, the laughs take a back seat as Handel and Bach's initially polite chat develops into a 'frank exchange of views'. There's also a very contemporary discussion on the value society places on art and artists; and of the nature of celebrity.

James Bryce makes Handel a larger than life character, but it's clear there are layers to him that Bryce skillfully strips back as the evening progresses. As Bach, Simon Tate gives a wonderfully subtle performance: much of it with mere glances, while Andrew Dallmeyer completes the cast as Schmidt and is in danger of stealing just about every scene he's in. Bruce Strachan's direction in-the-round ensures a lively pace for what could otherwise be a rather sedentary piece and makes great use of Rosslyn Chapel's acoustics.

As the play takes place over a dinner shared by the characters, we advise eating beforehand to avoid becoming too envious as they tuck into a veritable feast. A post show enquiry revealed that this is prepared for each performance by Mike Osborne & Cathie Owen; and that although most was exactly as it appeared, what had been passed off as 'oysters' on stage was in fact a rather less appetising alternative.

Seeing this show from Nonsense Room does require a bit of effort due to its location outside of central Edinburgh, but there is a good bus service and it can be combined with a visit to the chapel during the afternoon and a meal nearby before the evening performance.

Handling Bach runs at Rosslyn Chapel until Saturday 20th August


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Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Death Song" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

You Need Me should seriously consider if the Fringe is the best way to showcase their work. For any theatre company bringing a show to Edinburgh there will inevitably be compromises that have to be made due to the performance space and tight running time. And You Need Me's shows are so lovingly crafted that it's distressing to see the finished product with metaphorical corners knocked off or chips to the paintwork. This is a beautiful piece of theatre, and it has the potential to be much more. In many respects it is simply too good for the Fringe.

In what has to be one of Edinburgh's smallest performance spaces (the usual 'toilet' and 'car' based shows excepted) the show shoehorns in a cast of five, a cellist and sound equipment. Although the cast are rarely (if ever) all on stage simultaneously, it only takes three to make things look cluttered - and in a show with such a focus on movement and physicality, anything affecting its aesthetics is unfortunate.

The difficulties created by the restricted space are mitigated by having the cast spill into and through the audience at times, and for those who watch them, it creates some wonderfully unexpected moments. But on looking round, it was clear that most of the audience continued to stare straight ahead at the stage - we suggest sitting at least half way up the raked seating as you'll then be able to view the scenes that spill up the aisle and at the rear without craning your neck too badly.

The strict 'timeslot' also impacts on a show that feels somewhat curtailed - with a final reveal that seems more suited as a turning point in a longer show. And there is certainly the scope to build on the material here - indeed as it stands we are deprived of what could be one of the story's most powerful moments. We'll avoid talking about the plot here as its incremental storytelling could easily be spoiled by knowing too much in advance - and we'd urge caution when reading reviews elsewhere.

The ensemble cast give carefully constructed performances - Heriberto Montalban strikes the perfect note of helplessness and frustration during Juan's prison scenes with the underused Rosamond Martin's sympathetic teacher. Roger Ribo makes his character's interest in Juan's daughter Paulina suitably uncomfortable to watch, while the portrayal of the developing relationship between Paulina (Miren Alcala) and Juan's new girlfriend (Fran Moulds) is particularly touching. The cast's clever use of self-generated sound effects add a nice element to Greg Hall's musical accompaniment without becoming a distraction.

This isn't a show for everyone - its complex chronological structure demands effort from an audience, and it won't meet the 'fun night out' criteria of many casual Fringe-goers. However, for those who like their theatre to be artistic and intelligent, but with an honesty and simplicity that lacks pretension, I doubt there are many shows they will find as rewarding as Death Song. And despite my original comment about You Need Me needing to find better ways to present their work, if they keep coming to the Fringe, we'll definitely keep buying tickets.

Death Song runs at Udderbelly's Pasture until 28th August (not 15th)
Image used with permission

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

"After the End" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

Dennis Kelly's "After the End" is perfectly suited to the Fringe. While many shows struggle to overcome the restrictions of their performance space, it doesn't require much of a leap of the imagination to turn a Fringe venue into a dark, underground, claustrophobic nuclear shelter. In fact, should the 'Bomb' go up on a day I'm in Edinburgh, I've mentally filed the nearby 'Pleasance Underneath' as the place to head for.

That's the situation facing Louise as she wakes to find herself in the fall-out shelter Mark has brought her to after a nuclear explosion that took place during her work leaving do. It was lucky for Louise that Mark's flat had this relic from the cold war - and that he'd kept it stocked up. All they have to do is wait two weeks for the fall-out to pass before emerging from the shelter to the devastation Mark has told her about. That shouldn't be too hard - after all, they like each other. But control freak Mark doesn't think Louise appreciates what he's done for her. And Louise doesn't like being told what to do. Two weeks is suddenly a very long time.

Tony McGeever and Helen Darbyshire give impressive performances that develop as each character lurches between moments of power and vulnerability. Kelly's writing feels like it wants to use the individuals to make a wider statement about society - contrasting the paranoid, untrusting Mark who feels undervalued by his peers, with the open and popular Louise. It doesn't quite work for me, largely because I think it leads to Kelly making the wrong choices for the play. His decision as to which character's position is vindicated misses the opportunity to really ask uncomfortable questions of its audience. The play also doesn't know when to end - the long walk back from the 'Pleasance Baby Grand' affords the opportunity to listen in on audience reactions, and there were a lot of comments that the show didn't benefit from its final scene.

Dundee Rep's show works fantastically well as a character study, and builds the tension well. Just don't spend too much time analysing it afterwards, or the fairly significant plot hole will start to irritate.

After the End runs at the Pleasance Courtyard until 28th August
Image by Douglas Robertson used with permission

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"Cul-De-Sac" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

There may be those that will argue that this is pretty slight stuff; that middle class suburbia is an easy target; or point to the audience's tentative response to some of the less politic views expressed by the characters. But none of that matters. What matters is that it's funny.

When Tim (Alan Francis) moved his family into the Cul-De-Sac in search of a better quality of life, he wasn't expecting just how far the influence of community idol Tony would impact on his family. We never meet Tony, but we learn all about him through Tim's new neighbour Nigel (Mike Hayley) and local GP Dr Cole (Toby Longworth). Francis and Hayley bring their obvious comic talents to the piece, but it's Longworth who gets the chance to really show what else he's capable off. "Menacing" doesn't come close to covering it - he wouldn't be out of place as a playful psychopath in the next series of Luther. There's a great deal of skill in the writing too - including a gag that takes a long time to develop but pays off brilliantly with one of the funniest fight scenes you're likely to see at this year's Fringe.

I suspect word of mouth is already spreading about this one - on a wet Wednesday afternoon I bought the last ticket an hour before the show.

Cul-De-Sac runs at the Pleasance Courtyard until 28th August (not 15th or 22nd)
Image used with permission

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"Rose" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

This show is full of surprises. Firstly, it's a proper play. With a proper set. At the Fringe. At the Pleasance! Secondly, despite being promoted as "starring Keira & Art Malik", the performance of Keira Malik quickly dispels any suspicions of 'stunt casting'. Lastly, and most importantly, it completely challenged my preconceptions of a show examining the tensions between 1st and 2nd generation immigrants within a family.

Hywel John's play takes that already complex father/daughter relationship and adds an alcohol problem and a wife/mother who died giving birth. All this could easily overwhelm the characterisations, but John's writing carefully balances the 'issues' with moments that remind the audience these are people. And that they matter.

Art Malik gives the performance the audience is hoping to see from an actor of his standing, both as the young father and as his hospitalised older incarnation. As his daughter, Keira Malik gives a performance every bit as impressive. Her portrayal of the very young Rose is sensational, giving her clear childlike qualities without delivering a cartoon style interpretation of a child. Both actors enable the humour in the writing to come from the characters without forcing it or allowing it to dominate the play's tone.

This is very close to being a show audiences will leave raving about, but at the very last moment it loses its way and instead many (us included) were left a little confused by the final scene. A quick read of the script book and chat over a coffee and we think we understand it now - and in fact we were in danger of over-complicating things. As it would only require changing a line or two to provide the required clarity, we hope this might be addressed as the run progresses. (We saw the show on Sunday 7th)

Rose runs at the Pleasance Courtyard until 29th August (not the 16th)
Image used with permission

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"The World According to Bertie" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

Those of you reading this review will almost certainly fall into one of two camps. One group who have read Alexander McCall Smith's '44 Scotland Street' stories and want to know how true this adaptation is to the novel. The second group needs to be reassured that your lack of knowledge of the books won't prevent you enjoying the show. Between us, Waldorf and I can answer your questions. It's been a while since she read them, but she confirms that Lydia Bruce and Sandy Burns' adaptation remains true to the spirit of the originals. And despite never having encountered the characters before, I absolutely loved it.

While much of the credit for its success has to go to McCall Smith, adapting such a complex set of interlinking tales could very easily have gone horribly wrong. Bruce & Burns have clearly given much thought to their approach, ensuring that although the central focus is on young Bertie and his family, there's no shortage of stage time for the other characters' stories to be played out. I say 'stage', but that's not really correct. In director Warren Cooper's inspired concept for staging the show, the audience are seated on (surprisingly comfortable) stools while the scenes are presented all around them - with Bertie's bedroom situated right in the middle of them. It's a high risk approach, but it pays off beautifully - giving a real sense of place to each location. The production is also blessed with an impressive cast who pitch their performances perfectly for what must be an awkward venue to perform in.

This is a charming piece of theatre told with such style that seeing it is a memorable experience. For those of us who don't choose to finish our evenings in Edinburgh with some late night comedy, this is the perfect show to round off your day. And it deserves to have a life far beyond the end of August.

The World According to Bertie runs at C Soco until the 29th August with performances at 19:20 and 21:00 each night (not the 15th)
Image used with permission

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Monday, August 08, 2011

"Showchoir! The Musical" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

Although we wouldn't class ourselves as Gleeks, we do enjoy our weekly dose of "Glee", and being quite partial to 'mockumentaries' we should  be the perfect audience for the One Academy's "Showchoir! The Musical" (One Academy is a production company set up by the RSAMD). So it's surprising that it left us a little disappointed. It's a good, solid, entertaining show but there is a definite 'sparkle' missing.

Following the "Symphonic Sensations" on their path to glory, the mockumentary element works well and the technique of playing to the audience via large mirrors is surprisingly effective. Unfortunately, as the show progresses, the subjects featured on 'camera' become too wide-ranging with many unnecessarily adding to an already cluttered character set. The plot drags at times and script would benefit from a liberal amount of red ink.

But the writing's weakness is to the benefit of the cast who grasp the opportunity to play multiple roles with both hands and considerable skill. Vocally, the performances (intentionally or unintentionally) feel like a high school glee club made good rather than what we might expect from the RSAMD. It leaves us questioning the wisdom of featuring the cast in multiple full scale shows (the cast also perform daily in "Sunday in the Park with George").

In the main, the show is funny in a gentle chortle kind of way but rarely gains the laugh-out-loud moments the concept should be capable of delivering. For hardcore Glee fans this will fill an off-season gap nicely, and for those overwhelmed by the options available in the Fringe programme it makes for a safe, reliable choice. For those looking for something a bit special, this probably isn't the show you are looking for.

Showchoir! The Musical runs at C until 29 August (odd numbered days only)

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"Commencement" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

TheatreM provide an entertaining look at the unforeseen consequences when a group of students follow their teacher’s advice to “Think Global; Act Local”. They're starting a revolution.

Brent Boyd’s writing is lean and focussed, generating plenty of laughs while making a point or two along the way. As with many 'issue raising' plays it does veer slightly towards the 'preachy' but it isn't a huge problem. The direction from Douglas Lowry and Anne Scarbrough is as slick as you are likely to see in any ‘black box’ space at this year’s Fringe - the large ensemble are perfectly drilled and the moments when our attention shifts to events elsewhere are adeptly handled. The core cast all give strong performances and succeed in creating a believable group of friends (with all the usual internal cliques and rivalries).

There is a danger that it’s too entertaining for its own good and risks smothering some of the more subtle issues raised. In particular, the students’ claims that the world is a worse place now than when the teacher was their age, don’t quite get the attention they deserve.

So many shows get the whole ‘darkly comic’ vibe badly wrong, but this one really delivers on both counts.

Commencement runs at C in Chambers Street until 20th August (not 15th) at 1.15pm

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"Beef" - Edinburgh Fringe 2011

In the Fringe programme, "Beef" describes itself as "A witty and radical reinvention of Noah's Ark."

Not even close. Even for regular theatre and Fringe-goers like us, this was hard going. God help a poor unwary soul looking to fill a gap in their schedule who falls for the publicity. This is the kind of show that gives the Fringe a bad name.

That sounds dreadfully unfair of us, but we have to report we have absolutely no idea what this was about. We got the 'strangers forced together by circumstance' aspect; we got the 'marriage in trouble' stuff; but the significance of the biblical flooding and the cow related prophecies (yes, really) left us bemused (and in Waldorf's case dozing off).

And it had all started so promisingly, with a pidgin english retelling of how the post-flood world had taken shape. But once we travel back to the events of that evening, things deteriorate sharply. Why has Mark been chosen to receive visions and lead the small group of survivors? What's his relationship with the pregnant Kate? Why have these people been saved? What's with the wooden boxes? Where did Seb come from? Who was broadcasting details of the group's location on the radio? Why is Friday dying? And why is she called Friday? All these questions and many more won't be answered.

There is one redeeming element in some effective use of movement and music - but it's nowhere near enough.

We don't like being so negative about a show, but sometimes it's unavoidable.

Beef, from Nottingham New Theatre runs at C Soco until 29th August
Image used with permission

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Edinburgh Fringe 2011

The weather forecast is for rain, rain and more rain. It takes Waldorf an extra 15 minutes to wade through the crowds between her work and Waverley station. Hotel rooms are almost unattainable - and reasonably priced ones most certainly are. It can mean only one thing - the Edinburgh Fringe has started.

We'll use this post as a kind of index page for our Fringe coverage including links to previous posts and a list of shows as we see them.

Our Fringe 2011 Preview

Our tips for Fringe goers

And here's what we've seen so far:

Showchoir! The Musical (review posted)
Commencement (review posted)
Beef (review posted)
Rose (review posted)
The World According to Bertie (review posted)
After the End (review posted)
Cul-De-Sac (review posted)
David Leddy's Untitled Love Story (review posted)
Death Song (review posted)
Handling Bach (review posted)
Hairy Maclary & friends (review posted)
Viewless (review posted)
Remember This (review posted)
Dust (review coming soon)

We'd also point you in the direction of other sites that will be providing Fringe coverage. Do let us know if we've missed any..
Three Weeks
One4Review
Broadway Baby
FringeReview
Edinburgh Festivals
Onstage Scotland
Edinburgh Festival Punter
A Local's Guide to the Fringe
Fringe Guru
TVBomb

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

"Prom Night of the Living Dead" - August 2011

When the Scottish Youth Theatre selected Brad Fraser's musical "Prom Night of the Living Dead" as their main Summer Festival show, comparisons with Rocky Horror and Buffy were inevitable. Despite a cracking start with an ensemble number that sees the cast filling the Tron's aisles, it soon becomes clear that musically - and particularly lyrically - this isn't the strongest source material to work with. The humour in Fraser's dialogue is rarely as sharp as the Werewolf's claws; the lyrics are overly repetitive (and sometimes just awful); while parts of Ross Brown's new score for the SYT make little impression. It's very much to the credit of the cast that this turned out to be an enjoyable evening.

There’s clearly a variety of experience and ability on stage – some of the cast are here as a confidence builder; others for fun; and a few have serious theatrical ambitions. The beauty of SYT shows is that everyone seems comfortable in their roles - there are no ‘startled rabbits’ and no I-should-have-got-a-bigger-part grabs for the limelight. So it's fitting that the show is at its best in its big numbers – the opening/closing “Come on Fate” (that's what we're calling it anyway) and the title number are both brilliantly choreographed and performed, giving glimpses of what the show might have been.

The main parts are all well performed with Kyrah Harder and Lauren Kate Robertson as our plucky heroines Fern & Dawn, Martin Quinn and Andrew Still as Lon / ‘Werewolf Lon’ making the most of some painfully written duets. As is often the case, the villain of the show gets the best moments – and Katie Barnett knows exactly what to do with them. Producing a gloriously over-the-top performance (without ever being in danger of taking it too far) she wouldn’t look out of place on any professional stage. Add in her pop-friendly vocals and it's clear Barnett is a name for the future.

Mary McCluskey's direction moves things on at pace - impressive when working with a cast of over 40 - although the finale is a little frantic and left us slightly confused. I got grief at the interval for the fact that it took the second 'transformation' scene before I realised that Lon & the Werewolf were played by separate actors, but it just shows how well executed it was (and overhearing conversations leaving the theatre I know others didn't realise until the curtain call).

Please note that in keeping with our long standing policy, we treat all youth/student/amateur theatre in the same manner as professional productions - to do otherwise would be patronising to all involved.

Prom Night of the Living Dead runs at the Tron until Saturday 6th August.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

"The Pitmen Painters" - July 2011

At first glance, the basis of Lee Hall's play seems a simple one - a feel good tale about a group of miners in the 30's discovering they have a talent for painting. Before seeing it, I'd wondered where exactly the 'drama' or 'meaning' was going to come from. I'm not sure I've ever been more wrong. Two days later I'm still struggling to crystallise my feelings about the issues faced by the characters and the questions asked about our society - both then and now.

The play is filled with clashes of values and ideas - the individual v the collective; price v value; patronage v patronise; and whilst the focus is on art, the arguments apply across many aspects of society. Although at times in the second act it can get a little wordy, things never feel forced or heavy handed. As Hall has his characters learn, the message in art (and in theatre) reveals itself through the a combination of the creator, the object and the observer. This is very much a play that rewards thought and reflection. The waters are also muddied by a shifting balance of power between characters, and motivations that are often left ambiguous.

Of course, many of the themes of the play have a particular resonance for us - particularly Oliver Kilbourn's repeated pleas to be told if he was truly gifted as an artist or just 'good for a miner'. Despite a stringent policy at View From The Stalls of holding all productions to professional standards it's an issue we are very aware of when commenting on amateur or youth theatre.

Almost the definition of an ensemble piece, the entire cast deliver impressive performances, but Trevor Fox as Kilbourn deserves a special mention for the subtlety he brings to the character in his later scenes with Lyon. Max Roberts' direction is simple but hugely effective at evoking time and place; his use of projected images allowing the audience to see the paintings 'up close'.

The gentle banter makes for an entertaining evening, but it's the quiet thoughtfulness of the play that will stay with me.

"The Pitmen Painters" runs at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow until Saturday 30th July and then continues on a national tour.
Image by Keith Pattison used with permission.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Come on Glasgow - "The Pitmen Painters"

Just back from seeing "The Pitmen Painters" at Glasgow's Theatre Royal and we're very disappointed in Glasgow. Yes, we've had some lovely summer weather, and yes, we don't get that too often. But come on, this is a high profile show with a strong reputation that has been well received wherever it has played. It deserves a theatre that is more than half full. We've had a quick check on the ticketing website and it looks like most of the performances currently have similar ticket sales.

It will be tomorrow night before we get the chance to write up our thoughts on the show (now posted here), but we just wanted to quickly highlight that this is a high quality piece of theatre - and maybe encourage a few more people to get along to see it. It would even be worth some of those from further afield making the trip through (Edinburgh people - we're looking at you!).

"The Pitmen Painters" runs in Glasgow until Saturday. Tickets available online or by phone on 0844 871 7647.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

A 'Thank You' to The List <blush>

On Thursday morning I returned to my desk in the office to find a post-it, which simply read "Have you seen The List?". I'll admit to being a little concerned that I was about to be escorted out the of the building for having spent too much time reading the Guardian theatre blog. So I was relieved when my colleague pulled her copy of "The List" from her drawer and flicked to their article on "Scotland's Best Websites - The top 30 websites made for and by Scots". And there we were - right at the very top of the page. Okay, it was in reverse order, so we were No. 30 - but we were there. We're flattered, shocked and a little amused - so a big 'thanks' to the folks at The List for thinking us worthy of a mention.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

"Casablanca - The Gin Joint Cut" - July 2011

While there is plenty of theatrical silliness in Morag Fullarton’s cut down version of Casablanca, told with a multi-tasking, quick-changing cast of three, what struck me most was how much respect is given to the original. Despite the fact that I’ve never seen the film, I’ve absorbed enough of its cultural impact over the years that I’m familiar with its most iconic moments, and as writer and director, Fullarton ensures these are played almost entirely straight. In fact, it’s straight enough to make me think I’d quite happily watch a full length, full scale, ‘serious’ stage adaptation of the film.

The cast have been set a Herculean task – having to bring both the characters and the film cast to life. Gavin Mitchell and Clare Waugh are not just Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund – they’re Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa Lund. Jimmy Chisholm has been landed with the most demanding set of multiple roles and carries each off with brilliance – including one moment where he seems to exit the front of the stage and almost simultaneously re-emerge as another character at the rear of the stage. And on top of all that, they also have to play ‘themselves’ and several more characters in the B Movie and short films that are an inspired ‘additional featurettes’. (A comparison of published running times suggests the ‘Fringe Version’ may not include these ‘additional featurettes’ so if you can get along to the Tron it’s probably a better option).

Fullarton's direction drives the show on at considerable pace and the comic momentum built is simply irresistible - crammed full of visual, aural, physical and theatrical gags with each and every one hitting the mark. Barry McCall's sound design also adds greatly to the show - both in atmosphere and with a number of perfectly executed sound effects.

'Casablanca' is one of those very rare shows that I have no hesitation in recommending to absolutely everyone and I'm certain it will be a huge hit at the Fringe. I simply can't imagine anyone coming out of this without a huge grin plastered all over their face that will last all day long.

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.

Casablanca: The Gin Joint Cut ruins at the Tron until 23rd July and then at the Pleasance Courtyard from 3rd to 29th August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Image by John Johnston Photography used with permission.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Edinburgh Fringe 2011 - First Picks

As always with our Fringe previews, what follows shouldn't really be taken as recommendations - while some of our choices are based on experience with the companies, many are simply shows that we think might interest us based on the blurbs in the Fringe Programme. Your mileage may vary.

But before we get to that, we do have reviews already for a couple of productions that are now being revived for the Fringe. We adored the Citizens "One Million Tiny Plays About Britain" and Mark Thomas gave us an entertaining and thought provoking evening with his "Extreme Rambling". The Tron's "Casablanca: The Gin Joint Cut" was a fantastic night out and should feature near the top of anyone's list of must-see shows.

We've managed to put together quite a considerable list of shows - it was so much easier than last year when we found the pickings to be rather on the slim side. The downside of that is that with so many shows it will be harder than ever to schedule them all - and budget will certainly play a part too. So sadly it's inevitable that while we'd like to see all these shows, some will be 'lost along the way'.

We'd wanted to see Dundee Rep's production of Dennis Kelly's "After the End" but couldn't schedule the trip to Dundee, so it was good to see them taking it to Edinburgh. We also missed Fish and Game's "Alma Mater" at Scotland Street School last year so it's another show we're hoping to fit in - we love its idea of using technology as part of the performance.

We like the sound of "Commencement" with its schoolgirl revolution while the Comedian's Theatre Company are always worth seeing, so "Cul-de-Sac" is high on our list of shows to fit in.

Having given us "Sub Rosa" and "White Tea" in recent years we're more than willing to indulge David Leddy - even if his 'innovative meditation' in "Untitled Love Story" sounds a little outside our comfort zone. Similarly You Need Me have been pushing our boundaries since we first saw one of their shows three years ago. After a year's absence we're really looking forward to seeing what they have in store for us with "Death Song".

Long time followers of our Fringe coverage may have noticed that any show describing itself as "darkly comic" will catch our attention - but woe betide a show that doesn't live up to that billing. The first of those shows attempting the equivalent of a chocolate fondant on Masterchef is "The Ducks" which looks at youth unemployment. "Pushing up Poppies" set in a WWI trench also attempts the task, but should benefit from having Kieran Lynn as a writer - I've really enjoyed some of his other plays.

While for many Fringe-goers (and the press critics) the Traverse is their main hub for the first week, previous bad experiences and high ticket prices make us wary of booking up. But "The Golden Dragon" with its promise of "whisking you away from your local takeaway to East Asia and back" is enough to convince us to take a chance.

The prospect of "Handling Bach", a show about a fictional meeting between composers Handel and Bach wouldn't normally get a second glance from us, but Nonsenseroom have more than earned our trust over a number of years. As always with their shows out at Rosslyn Chapel we particularly recommend booking up for one of their 'special evenings' on Saturdays 13th & 20th which include a light buffet and tour of the Chapel. The Chapel is a bus trip out from the city centre but the effort should be well rewarded.

I've been wanting to see Fin Kennedy's play "How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found" for several years so I'm delighted to see The Outsiders staging it - so much so that we're prepared to break our usual rule of avoiding anything in a 'hotel venue'.

We've enjoyed a few of Mike Maran's storytelling shows over the years and we're looking forward to seeing his tale of the Italians who made their home in Scotland in "Italia'n'Caledonia". A different take on immigration/integration also caught our eye in the shape of "Rose" which focuses on the struggle between 1st and 2nd generation middle eastern immigrants starring father and daughter Art & Keira Malik.

A comedy based on a search to cast a dog in a film could well be awful but something about "Lights, Camera, Walkies" makes us want to give it a chance. Similarly unusual is "The Tour Guide" which appears to take place on an open top bus around the city.

"The Monster in the Hall" was a big hit for the Citizens/TAG last year and it's great to see them taking it to the Traverse, but unless we can take advantage of a 2 for 1 offer that whole "Traverse ticket price" thing might be a problem. Of course, the Traverse isn't the only place where prices can make us think twice about a show - Steven Berkoff's "Oedipus" at the Pleasance is another show with higher prices than we'd like. Also at the Pleasance but with a much more attractive price tag is "One Under" - a tale set on the London Underground from PartingShot.

Cumbernauld Theatre's "Viewless" is set around a witness protection programme and as we enjoyed their previous take on "The Wasp Factory" we reckon this is worth a look. Of course when it comes to relying on a company's reputation few shows are in better standing than "What Remains" from site-specific legends Grid Iron. But seriously - at up to £19 a ticket we're already left wishing we'd booked up before the 2 for 1 offer sold out.

And rounding up the shows that Waldorf and I plan on seeing together is "The World According to Bertie" - an adaptation of an Alexander McCall Smith novel.

But that's only the beginning, we've each got shows that we just can't persuade the other to see, so we've got our individual lists too...

I'm not sure that "Antony and Cleopatra" would normally make my list, but I've enjoyed reading director Claire Wood's Play Thing blog on her efforts to put it together, so I'd like to see how it turns out. "Dust" seems certain to gain plenty of publicity with being set on the day of Margaret Thatcher's death and featuring Arthur Scargill (as a character - not the real one!). Staying with politics/history (although going a little further back) is "The Trials of Galileo". I'm also hoping to see "Remember This" from Edinburgh University Theatre Company as I really enjoyed their "Wild Allegations" last year.

Rather unusually, and possibly inspired by her new Edinburgh based job, Waldorf has managed to find herself a substantial number of shows she hopes to see on her own. It remains to be seen just how many of her ambitious list can be fitted in to long lunches or early finishes (and she may wait for early reviews). Realistically I'll be amazed if she manages more than a handful and god knows when she'll get round to writing them up, so if these are your shows please don't count on a review you can use. Anyway, here is what caught her eye...

Bawbees and Ducats or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Piazza
The Boy James
Bluebird
Can't Stand Up For Falling Down
A Dish of Tea with Dr Johnson
The End
Even in Edinburgh / Glasgow
Find Me
4.3 Miles from Nowhere
Free Time Radical
(g)Host City
The Girl Who Thought She Was Irish
Go to Your God Like a Soldier
The Historians
I, Malvolio
Ink
The Laramie Project
Laundry Boy
Me, Myself & Miss Gibbs
Minute After Midday
The Mourning Party
One Thousand Paper Cranes
Private Peaceful
Release
Simon Callow in Tuesday at Tescos
Taketh Me Away
The Toll
Your Last Breath

And do feel free to let us know what your tips are...

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Yes, Prime Minister" - June 2011

Although she's taken a back seat from writing reviews these days, Waldorf always contributes to what ends up in our thoughts here. After seeing "Yes, Prime Minister" she surprised me by offering to write our comments on it. Turns out her plan was simply to say "Give it a miss and watch the DVD box set instead". But by then I'd already had to make a conscious decision not to leave at the interval - and the main thing that kept me there was the fact I was going to be writing about it here.

When I'd first heard about this stage version of the much loved TV show I was sceptical. It was hard to imagine these characters played by anyone other than Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne & Derek Fowlds. Even with the original writing team of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn I struggled to believe it would work. And then the reviews came in - all very positive - for both the London and touring casts. We simply couldn't dismiss it anymore.

But almost as soon as the show started we knew we'd made a dreadful mistake. This was horrible. Simply horrible. It would be understandable if our disconnection from the show was due being unable to accept these new faces as the well known characters, but that wasn't the case. Yes, the central performances from Richard McCabe, Simon Williams and Chris Larkin were overcooked, but the real problem was in the writing. Sir Humphrey no longer has his aura of supreme competence and Jim Hacker appears to have the upper hand for most of the evening. Hacker and Bernard have lost all the charm and likability of the originals leaving Hacker a pretty vile little man and Bernard a cliched upper class twit. It's as if they have been B'stardised into their New Statesman equivalents.

The plot, such that it is, also seems terribly misjudged. The (comparatively) grounded reality of the TV show has disappeared and the replacement is almost beyond farce. The suggestion that they should comply with a foreign representative's request to provide him with an underage prostitute is at best in bad taste; to attribute that request to a "Kumrani" politician and include discussion of Islamic attitudes is likely to cause considerable offence.

In the interest of fairness, many in the audience at Glasgow's Theatre Royal clearly enjoyed the evening. Although the reception to the first half was generally rather flat, by the curtain call it had won most over. And don't forget that there are plenty of excellent reviews of the show with only one or two feeling as we did.

For us it was totally lacking in humour, cleverness or subtlety - everything that made the original so wonderful.
Give it a miss and watch the DVD box set instead.

"Yes, Prime Minister" runs in Glasgow until Satuday 25th June and then continues on its national tour.
Image by Manuel Harlan used with permission.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

"5 Minute Theatre" - 24 hours of theatre

Just a quick point in the direction of the National Theatre of Scotland's "5 Minute Theatre" which starts at 5pm on Tuesday 21st June and runs until 5pm on Wednesday 22nd June. 24 hours of individual pieces of theatre, each lasting five minutes, will be streamed on the website fiveminutetheatre.com

I think we'll be limited to watching some of the Tuesday evening pieces, but hopefully some or all of them may be made available to watch after the initial event.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

"Fair Friday" - June 2011

I'm too young to have witnessed the mass exodus from Glasgow 'doon the watter' each July, but as a child I spent the odd day cycling round Millport and remember fondly a trip on the Waverley. So the Citizens Community Company's "Fair Friday" rekindled memories while also giving an idea of just how significant an event it must have been in its heyday.

Combining true tales, moments of comedy and traditional Glasgow songs it was clear to see it resonating with sections of the audience old enough to have experienced the reality for themselves. It was pretty incredible to see so many people singing along to songs that I'd never heard of - it certainly made me wonder about other parts of Glaswegian culture I've missed out on.

As with all youth, community and amateur shows we share our thoughts on them in the same manner as we do professional shows - we don't believe in making 'allowances'. Indeed, one of the things that influenced that 'policy' was the high standard that the Citz Community Co have delivered over the years - their "Wicked Christmas" shows are a regular highlight of our year. And with that in mind, we did feel that "Fair Friday" was not as polished as previous shows - while still clearly well received by the audience. The songs were a great success, however some of the scenes lacked impact and perhaps due to there being so many entrances and exits there were a couple of stumbled lines.

One of the enjoyable things about seeing the group's shows year after year is seeing familiar faces develop, but it was also good to see a number of new faces this time around. It's to the credit of all involved how successful the company has been over a prolonged period. And we've already booked up for this year's Christmas show.

Fair Friday has completed its run at the Citizens.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

"Dunsinane" - June 2011

After spending an evening doing a 'first pass' of the Edinburgh Fringe programme, I can't escape the irony that a sequel to Macbeth with political allegories for present day conflicts is exactly the kind of show I'd run a mile from. Yet Dunsinane is the best piece of theatre I've seen in months. But then, in fairness, those Fringe shows don't have the pedigree of a writer like David Greig attached to them - or the logos of the RSC and NTS on their adverts.

Despite being aware that the play had been well received on its initial run in 2010, I'd avoided reading much about it in advance - so its comedic tone and contemporary language came as a bit of a (pleasant) shock. Although I must confess that my puzzlement as to how exactly Lady Macbeth ('Gruach' as she is here) was still around, did require a pre-show check of her fate in Shakespeare's tale. But I needn't have bothered as Greig quickly explains her 'resurrection' with a rather ingenious bit of 'retcon'.

He also creates a wide scope for the play, letting the audience engage with both the high level political machinations and the soldiers whose lives are affected by them. Jonny Phillips excels as Siward, the English general tasked with securing the throne for Malcolm (and a peaceable neighbour for England). Even when his character crosses all kinds of lines, Phillips gives him a nobility that keeps the audience with him. Siobhan Redmond's Gruach coalesces her character's playful and steely aspects beautifully while Brian Ferguson gives Malcolm enough ambiguity to leave us wondering if the weak King is in fact a master manipulator. Tom Gill gives a wonderfully engaging performance as the young soldier (who also serves as narrator) and Alex Mann as Egham delivers many of Greig's best lines with a perfect sense of comic timing. And I could go on - the whole supporting cast deliver in every role.

The contemporary 'message' about the dangers of nation building bleeds through the play, and there are only one or two occasions where it feels slightly heavy-handed. Waldorf felt the final scenes didn't provide the ending the piece deserved, but for me it worked well. So much so, that as a whole I don't think I've seen a better 'traditional' 'proper' 'on-a-stage' piece of theatre. Ever.

And that's probably where this post should end. But that would ignore a significant element of how I felt about Dunsinane. An aspect that required me to make a conscious decision to flick an 'ignore' setting in my head during the show in order that I could enjoy it.

Much of the humour, particularly in the first act, is at the expense of Scotland and the Scots. It's genuinely laugh-out-loud funny and the Scottish audience enjoyed the opportunity to laugh at themselves. And that's where I have a problem. For despite the National Theatre of Scotland 'badge' this is a revival of a Royal Shakespeare Company production that ran in London at the start of 2010. Which leaves me feeling rather uncomfortable at the thought of a 'London' audience enjoying laughs at the savages up north. Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive - I'd certainly be interested to hear if anyone else had similar concerns.

But even with that caveat, I'm pretty sure that in a week/month/year my memory of Dunsinane will simply be of a wonderful night at the theatre.

Dunsinane has completed its run at the Lyceum and the Citizens. It runs at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 2nd July.

Image by Richard Campbell used with permission.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Website Problems

As many of you will be aware Blogger has had some serious difficulties in the last few days. While View From the Stalls doesn't seem to have been down at any time, Blogger took the decision to 'roll back' the system and temporarily remove posts made during a time period of several hours. As a result it removed our post about the announcement of the shortlists for the Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland for most of today.

Fortunately it appears that normal service has now been resumed.

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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Critics' Awards for Theatre in Scotland shortlists

Congratulations to all those on the shortlists for the CATS awards 2010-2011 which were announced today. Disappointingly, despite seeing rather a lot of theatre in the last 12 months we only managed to see two of the productions recognised. While we are delighted to see "Roadkill" feature deservedly in 5 categories we're a little surprised it didn't also get the nod for John Kazek for Best Male Performance. The only other nominated show we saw was Molly Taylor's charming "Love Letters to the Public Transport System" which appears in the Best New Play category.

Other shows with multiple nominations include Dundee Rep's "Sweeney Todd", Stellar Quines/Lyceum's "Age of Arousal", the National Theatre of Scotland's "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart" and the Traverse's "The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain".

We can't comment on shows we didn't see - other than to say that they must have been brilliant to edge out some of the shows we did see. There are two in particular that we expected to feature in a few categories this year that the critics have overlooked entirely - the Citizens brilliant "One Million Tiny Plays about Britain" and the Tron's outrageous "Valhalla!".

The full shortlist is available at the CATS website and the winners will be announced in a ceremony on Sunday 12th June.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Falling/Flying" - April 2011

Stef Smith's 'monologue' in two voices allows us an insight into what it means to live the life of a transgender woman. We witness her early realisation of how she wanted to live, the prejudice she encounters, and then finally watch as her hard won identity is stripped from her by illness. But this isn't as bleak as it sounds. There is plenty of humour as 'he' and 'she' share memories and the overwhelming feeling is of adversities overcome and a life lived to the full.

John Paul Murray and Gordon Brandie give compelling performances as the 'male' and 'female' voices and make a real connection with the audience - it really matters that we're there to listen to her/their story. For the most part Ros Philip's direction works well, but although they add a nice touch, the projection elements seem unnecessary and out of place in what is otherwise a pretty pared back production. The moments when the actors play other characters in her life aren't always as clearly realised as they could be - in part due to a narrative that jumps around a little too much (also resulting in it being difficult to get a sense of the timeframes involved).

"Falling/Flying" is a touching personal tale but with its complex structure, poetic language and movement the volume of the theatricality risks drowning out the intimacy of the story.

Falling/Flying has completed its run at the Tron.
Image by Chris Amos used with permission.

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Friday, April 08, 2011

"Project Branded" - April 2011


Tron Skillshops, the Tron's drama group for 13 to 17 year olds, brings us a look at where society may be headed with "Project Branded". With its group of close friends refusing to conform to the state's new programme designed to restrain teenage impulses it's like a mash up of "Skins", "A Clockwork Orange" and "We Will Rock You" - which isn't a bad place to start.

This is the first time we've been along to a Tron Skillshops production so it's worth outlining our approach to youth drama. Along with amateur and community theatre, we don't make any allowances and treat all performances exactly as we do fully professional shows. We believe that to do otherwise would be patronising to all those involved.

So, with that in mind, let's get the negatives out of the way right at the start. Most likely due to first night nerves, there were some quiet voices, a fair number of stumbled lines and a couple of horribly hesitant moments. And similarly, during the chorus/dance/movement segments there wasn't always the polished execution there might have been.

Fortunately, there was a lot of good stuff on display here too. The band of 'Outlaws' fighting the system make for a believable group of friends with Grant McDonald's "Ryan" and Ebony Blair's "Jess" making particularly strong impressions. Jack Kennedy gives an assured performance as Project Branded's "Head Advisor", clearly enjoying the character's almost GLaDOS-like personality. Directors Lisa Keenan & Gillian Crawford have given the show a well thought out structure that keeps things interesting - and all involved deserve credit for giving the show quite a ballsy finish. Hopefully as the run progresses the cast will gain in confidence and experience and be able to showcase the full extent of their talents.

We received our ticket for Project Branded through our membership of the Tron's Patrons Scheme - which we thoroughly recommend to all regular attendees at the Tron.

Project Branded runs at the Tron until Saturday 9th April
Image by John Johnston used with permission

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Tuesday, April 05, 2011

"Mark Thomas - Extreme Rambling" - April 2011


Since the shocking revelation at the weekend that I have parents who think Michael McIntyre is funny, my mind has been tormented by the possibility that this may be the result of a genetic flaw and that later in life I may succumb to the same mental frailty. But fortunately, last night I had my fears banished – I just don’t believe anyone who found Mark Thomas as funny as I did could ever tolerate watching McIntyre’s ridiculous grin for more than 60 seconds without putting a foot through the TV.

This latest piece of political comedy saw Mark tell the packed Citizens Theatre of his escapades on an attempt to walk the full length of the Israeli-built wall which divides Israel from Palestine. As with all comedy gigs there's a danger of any review spoiling half the fun - so please forgive us for not providing any details of the evening. But here's everything you need to know: Mark Thomas is a comedy genius - not a word we use lightly. What he delivers is a carefully constructed retelling which has been crafted and polished for maximum impact; yet his obvious fire and passion make it feel fresh and spontaneous. Along with the rest of the audience we spent 95% of the evening grinning and laughing. But Thomas has an ability, like no other performer I've encountered, to shift to a more serious point and kill the laughter stone dead as we take in the shocking detail he's just dropped on us. So often we've seen audiences at other performers fail to appreciate such shifting tones, but Thomas has such control over his audience that we follow his lead as single unit.

With impeccable timing, a self deprecating attitude and an ability to bring characters to life, Thomas is a comic and theatrical performer at the absolute top of his game. For anyone even a little sympathetic to his views on politics, human rights and civil liberties, I doubt there is a more entertaining night out available anywhere.

Mark Thomas - Extreme Rambling has completed its two night run at the Citizens as part of the Magners Glasgow International Comedy Festival. It continues on an extensive UK tour including dates in Inverness and Aberdeen.
Image used with permission.

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Frankenstein" (NT Live) - March 2011

The National Theatre's production of "Frankenstein" starring Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, directed by Danny Boyle has been one of London's hottest theatre tickets in recent months; so we weren't alone in being grateful for the opportunity to see it on the GFT screen as part of the NT Live scheme. The demand for tickets was inflated further through the gimmick high concept decision to have Miller and Cumberbatch alternate roles on a nightly basis between Frankenstein and the Creature which left many wanting to see both versions. And although we really enjoyed it, I'm just not sure it merits a return visit.

We won't rehash the debate about how well the whole NT Live thing works as we've covered all that before when we saw "Phedre" - it suffices to say that we're wholeheartedly in favour of it as a way of enabling us to see productions we would never get the chance to see. I'll just add that in some respects Boyle's direction of the show seemed well suited to the cinematic transfer but some of his more striking moments probably really have to be experienced first hand.

By the time we saw the show, we knew we would be seeing Miller as Victor Frankenstein and Cumberbatch as the Creature - which Waldorf had already decreed to be 'the wrong way round'. However, the show changed our opinions on that - but perhaps not quite as you may expect. And that was only the start of our disagreements about this show.

I quickly found Cumberbatch's creature to be lacking in subtlety - perhaps due to the camera zooming in for a performance designed to be viewed from a distance. Waldorf on the other hand loved his performance and was distinctly unimpressed by Miller's portrayal of Frankenstein, who I had thought excellent. And it wasn't enough for either of us to simply see the 'reverse' casting - I wanted to see Miller play both roles simultaneously and Waldorf wanted to see Cumberbatch do the same. But that might be an ask too far even for a director of Boyle's talent.

We also couldn't agree on the production's prolonged opening sequence as the creature is 'born' and gradually gains control of his body. For me this was unbearably long and I just wanted it to start already while Waldorf found it an important part of the character's development.

Our other significant disagreement was over the colourblind casting of Victor's family. I'm all for playing individual characters against 'expectations' as to their race but they should retain the relationship between characters. Without explanation of adoption or a step-relationship it was impossible for me to accept them as a family unit, particularly given the accents involved, which left me struggling to feel the pain the characters are put through. Waldorf again disagreed - not caring about the racial identities and more concerned by what she considered a poor performance by George Harris as Frankenstein Sr.

In fact, just about the only thing we do agree on is that we both really enjoyed it. And to cap it all Waldorf has just disagreed once more with my earlier statement and insists it would be worth a return visit - although sadly time won't permit one. It might not have succeeded in connecting with either of us emotionally but as a piece of spectacular storytelling it's hard to beat.

There is an NT Live broadcast featuring Miller as the Creature and Cumberbatch as Victor on 24th March which will also be shown for a number of 'repeat' performances. The production at the National Theatre runs until 2nd May but advance tickets are sold out - a limited number of day tickets are available.
Image by Catherine Ashmore used with permission.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

"Love Letters to the Public Transport System" - March 2011

Molly Taylor's re-telling of her quest to thank a number of train and bus drivers who got her to the right place at the right time, combined with the public transport related stories of others, is a delightful piece of theatre. The peg on which the concept hangs may be a little shaky - one of the central tales only really involves a coincidental meeting on a bus - but the beauty here is in the telling. It's a long time since I've seen a performer in the Citizens Circle Studio hold an audience's attention the way Taylor did.

Despite that, its charm and confessional quality did leave me with a nagging doubt - and revealed a difference in attitude between Waldorf and I towards theatre of this kind. Large parts of the play are presented as autobiographical, and while I was happy to take things at face value I couldn't help doubt the spark of inspiration for the piece. The Molly Taylor we met last night - or at least her stage persona - just didn't strike me as 'cooky' enough to start shooting off letters to anonymous public transport employees. Unless of course the idea of creating a piece of theatre based on it was there from the very beginning. Such premeditation wouldn't invalidate what followed, but for me it would somehow take a layer of sheen off of it.

Unusually, Waldorf was more sceptical than I, questioning not just the motivation but to what extent the events presented were based in reality - so far as to doubt if any letters were actually sent (even though the replies appeared to be produced on stage). And interestingly, that wouldn't matter to her at all. It didn't need to be real - none of it.

Fortunately we can both agree that regardless of what level of dramatic license she has employed, Taylor is a wonderful storyteller who is equally at home making an audience laugh as tugging their heartstrings.

Love Letters to the Public Transport System is presented as a work in progress as part of the National Theatre of Scotland's Reveal season. It has concluded its runs at the Traverse and the Citizens.
Image by Drew Farrell used with permission

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"Count Me In" - March 2011

Gary McNair's "Count Me In" is one of those shows whose success (or otherwise) really depends on what the artist wants to achieve. If he's aiming to inform and provoke his audience then it probably has to be regarded as a failure; but if it's all just an excuse for a fun evening then it's a big success.

McNair's main problem in any attempt to educate his audience is its self-selecting make up. The vast majority of those choosing to see a show about the political system will have sufficient interest/understanding of politics that there is unlikely to be much here that will be new to them - and some will be frustrated by his inaccuracies. While his insistence that in Westminster elections we don't vote nationally for a Prime Minister but vote for a party may be de facto correct for many voters, it ignores the reality that we vote only for an individual person in a constituency - and one who is capable of changing their party allegiance at will. To be fair, McNair makes no claims to be an expert and is on journey of learning himself - but that's a fairly big mistake to make.

Most of the show is pitched at too basic a level for the majority of the audience - when he drops 'gerrymandering' into his illustration of varying constituency sizes it seems like we're about to go down a more interesting road but it's instantly discarded. And we get no mention of party funding, political broadcasts, media partiality etc. We don't even get the contrast between the various voting systems used in the UK in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, European elections etc with the question as to how they can all be 'the best' system. It's also disappointing that we're given a largely Anglicised version of the development of British democracy.

In a couple of weeks, Mark Thomas appears at the Citizens - a comedian/activist who manages to highlight the absurdity of the detail and complexity of the systems that run our society, and although McNair's previous show on finance, "Crunch", showed he's capable of that, "Count Me In" falls considerably short.

But what it lacks in substance it makes up for, at least in part, in entertainment value. McNair's self deprecating approach works well and the electronic voting pads add the novelty factor = if perhaps not used to their full potential. His audience interactions are handled well, but at times he would benefit from a stand-ups killer instinct to shut-up an audience member enjoying their moment in the spotlight a little too much. What he does have, is a brilliant eye for a well crafted routine - particularly the creation of his 'digital assistant' (although she is then allowed to drone on far too long). There's no doubt that "Count Me In" is entertaining, but the overwhelming feeling we were left with was of a missed opportunity to really attack the flaws that exist in UK politics.

Count Me In was presented as a work in progress as part of the National Theatre of Scotland 'Reveal' season. It has now concluded its runs at the Traverse & Citizens.
Image by Drew Farrell used with permission

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