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
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
The Laramie Project
Laundry Boy
Me, Myself & Miss Gibbs
Minute After Midday
The Mourning Party
One Thousand Paper Cranes
Private Peaceful
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...


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.


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

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.


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.


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.