Author: Bouquets & Brickbats

Songs of Friendship 3: Revelations

13/03/20

It’s likely that James Rowland’s trilogy will be the last stage performance we see for a while, thanks to a certain wee virus up-ending life as we know it. As mass gatherings are banned and large theatres begin to shut, we’re here, slathered in hand-sanitiser, hoping that the small, clean Traverse 2 is a safe enough space.

This is part three of the trilogy, but – at the time of watching – we hadn’t yet seen part two. That has now been rectified, which is good because it means I’m writing with full knowledge of the story – but bad because it’s playing havoc with our house-style of writing in the present tense…

Anyway.

Revelations is about an older, sadder James. The shock of losing a best friend to cancer; the awkward sadness of an inevitable break-up – these heartaches belonged to a young man, not quite fully-fledged, whatever his birth certificate might have said. This final instalment is altogether more grown up, although, of course, James is still James, so ‘maturity’ isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Still, he’s forced to confront some pretty adult issues, and there’s an endearing frankness to the way he details his response.

The main focus is parenthood, specifically the idea of being a sperm donor for his best friend and her wife. He wouldn’t be the baby’s father (it would have two mothers), but he would be an active presence in its life. And, he worries, maybe too active a presence: is he getting in the way of Sarah and Emma’s relationship?

This final instalment is, without doubt, a tragedy, albeit told with humour – and without clothes. Yes, that’s right – without clothes. Because Rowland spends the last twenty minutes stark-bollock naked. It’s a shame that we need trigger warnings (and I do understand why; I’m not arguing against them in principle) because the shock-factor is somewhat undermined by a ‘THIS SHOW CONTAINS FULL-FRONTAL NUDITY’ poster that greets us as we enter. Instead of being startling, the undressing is more: ‘Oh, okay then; here it is…’

It’s definitely brave, although I’m not sure why he doesn’t pop on a dressing gown after the key moment of revelation. Except that there’s a sense throughout the trilogy of a character who always pushes things too far, and maybe this is just the final iteration of that trait.

All in all, Songs of Friendship establishes Rowland as an accomplished and empathetic storyteller, whose friendly bumblings through life will retain a place in many hearts.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Songs of Friendship 2: A Hundred Different Words For Love

14/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Actor/writer James Rowland presents the second part of his Songs of Friendship trilogy, although we’re seeing it out of sequence, having already seen parts 1 and 3.  Though it employs pretty much the the same techniques, it feels decidedly gentler and much more light-hearted than either its angst-ridden predecessor or successor.

The music also reflects this softer feel. Once again, Rowland uses a looping device to build up layers of melody, but the mellow-sounding keyboard he uses creates a lusher sound than we heard in either of the other parts.

In this episode, James’s best friend, Sarah, is getting married to her partner, Emma, while James himself is going through the throes of a passionate, but ultimately doomed romance with an un-named woman. As before, Rowland plays all the roles, flitting from one character to the next with ease. He effortlessly draws his audience into the story and there’s some nice interplay between him and us. The story is very funny in a Richard Curtis sort of way – something that Rowland happily refers to during the telling – and he scampers around the stage, dispensing observations and even, at one point, sporting a very fetching red dress.

For my money, this is the most successful chapter of the trilogy. It doesn’t try to shock or challenge too much, but just envelops me in a warm glow and sends me on my way with a smile on my face.

Philip Caveney

Songs of Friendship 1: Team Viking

11/03/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Writer/performer James Rowland is on stage at the Traverse, dressed in a shabby suit and telling us a delightful shaggy dog story. This is Team Viking, the first part of a trilogy, though we are assured that each one is stand-alone. (We’re booked in to see the other two as well – although, because of other commitments, not in the right order.)

Rowland is an aimiable and affable storyteller, who knows how to handle a joke and has us laughing at some pretty unlikely events. Somebody’s mother being run over and killed by an ambulance? That’s not funny! And yet… somehow… you don’t want to laugh but…

James relates how, eight years ago, his best friend from childhood, Tom, was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer (also not the kind of thing that comedy gold is generally inspired by)  – and how Tom’s dying wish was to be given a proper funeral, just like the one Kirk Douglas’s Einar had in the 1958 film, The Vikings. You know the kind of thing. A longboat drifting out to sea, set ablaze by fiery arrows while that unforgettable theme music plays. He assigns a very reluctant James and another friend, Sarah to organise it for him.

So, no pressure there.

Exactly how they achieve this memorable send-off provides an hour of pleasurable storytelling, with Rowland breaking off every so often to add another layer to a looped song he is gradually putting together as the tale unfolds. There’s a message in the song, but we won’t fully appreciate it until the end…

As it’s fairly unusual to be reviewing a trilogy, we’ll wait until we’ve seen the next two instalments to issue the requisite stars. Those who would like to immerse themselves in the full experience can book to see the complete trilogy on Saturday night.

Team Viking is an encouraging start – and, considering recent world events, this cheery, relaxed session may be just the kind of thing we’re all in need of.

Philip Caveney

The Secret Garden

06/03/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is a much beloved children’s classic, a popular subject for TV and film – indeed, a new big screen version looms on the horizon even as I write. This Red Bridge Arts production approaches the story from a fresh and unusual direction, the three-strong cast using clowning techniques to skilfully mine the humour hidden within the text. And before you ask, yes, there is humour there, if you look for it.

After the tragic deaths of her parents in India, (not funny so far!) Mary Lennox (Itxaso Moreno), is sent to England to live in a bleak manor house in Scotland (yes, I know; it’s Yorkshire in the book). Having been raised by family servants, she can barely speak any English and the opening sequence neatly illustrates her bewilderment as she travels by ship to a country that is totally unfamiliar to her. This depiction of Mary as a truculent, obstinate outsider is effectively done – we’re much more used to seeing her portrayed as slightly subdued and uncommunicative, but here her refugee status is more clearly drawn.

Mary is looked after by the family housemaid, Martha (Sarah Mielle), and soon she encounters her twelve-year-old brother, Dickon (Gavin Jon Wright), who seems to have a Dr Doolittle affinity with animals. And then, of course, she meets up with Colin (also played by Mielle), the reclusive son of the house’s widowed owner, Mr Craven. Colin has spent so long indoors, he has become convinced that he cannot walk and consequently never goes outside. But Mary has discovered the titular garden, originally planted by the late Mrs Craven. In his grief, Mr Craven has locked it away from human gaze for years. But nature, it seems, once rediscovered, has amazing transformative powers…

It’s a charming, sprightly and wonderfully prickly production but, with a running time of just one hour, the story virtually sprints past and this adaptation, written and directed by Rosalind Sydney, omits the final, redemptive act. We never encounter the broken-hearted Mr Craven  – we’re simply told he’s ‘away on business’ – and surely his transformation is a key feature of the story. I’d love to see this revisited with a longer running time and with that final piece of the puzzle dropped into place.

The youngsters in the audience (at whom this is, of course, aimed) clearly enjoy what they see. I, on the other hand, a somewhat older child, am left wanting more.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Within Sight

05/03/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ellen Renton’s Within Sight is a beautifully written piece, following a disabled athlete’s failed attempt to qualify for the paralympics. Like Renton, the protagonist has albinism, and is angry at the way the world seems set to trip her up.

Renton is clearly a talented poet: the language is rich and rhythmic, engaging and provocative. The video projections (by filmmaker Kiana Kalanter Hormoz) complement the narrative well, providing sighted members of the audience with a sense of the protagonist’s experience. And I like the running, the physical exertion, the beats that match the words. There’s a real sense of battle here, of exhaustion, of how it feels when simple, everyday actions are rendered difficult.

If there’s a problem, it’s that there’s not quite enough of anything: the play is very short (about forty minutes), and there’s certainly space within the story for more detail, more emotion, more elucidation. There’s plenty of scope for another twenty minutes’ worth, I think – although Renton might not relish the extra running that would entail…

Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking performance, drawing much needed attention to the casual able-ism that permeates society.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

We Are in Time

04/03/20

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

About ten minutes into the performance of We Are in Time, Susan taps me on the shoulder. She leans in close and whispers two words into my ear.

‘It’s tosh!’

I stare at her in bewilderment. I mean, there are many words I would use to describe this show – unique, audacious, beautiful – but ‘tosh’ certainly isn’t one of them. She notes my puzzled expression and shakes her head, then points surreptitiously to The Narrator, a young woman whose face has been naggingly familiar from the moment she walked onstage. The penny drops. Of course! It’s Alison O’Donnell, best known for playing DS Alison ‘Tosh’ McIntosh in the TV detective drama, Shetland. And I have to say, ‘Tosh’ is a long way from her regular beat.

I relax and go back to being enraptured.

It’s hard to describe exactly what this show is, but I’ll try. The set has all the stark, clinical lines of an operating theatre, complete with two illuminated tables. Instead of being peopled by a team of surgeons, however, there are a dozen musicians, sawing industriously away at their respective instruments – violin, viola, cello, double bass – creating a series of mournful, haunting melodies. Meanwhile, the recently deceased Jay (Jodie Landau) wanders calmly amongst them, singing lines that seem to have originated in a medical textbook, while Stella (Ruby Philogene) gratefully prepares to receive his donated heart. Every so often, O’Donnell chimes in with detailed information about the various procedures that are observed in such situations. Behind the performers, a large screen conveys a series of related images.

Through the various streams of information, we follow the progress of the heart, which travels from Jay’s chest cavity, halfway across the globe, until it finally finds its new home in Stella. In the process, a compelling and complex human drama is enacted through music, song and imagery. The result is eerily haunting, surprisingly informative and even suspenseful.

Written by Pamela Carter, with music composed by Valgeir Siguròsson and beautifully performed by the Scottish Ensemble, We Are in Time is quite simply an extraordinary theatrical experience. In all my years of theatre-going, I can honesty say that have never seen anything quite like it before.

And that, in my book, is a major recommendation.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

03/03/20

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Nobody’s talking about sixteen-year-old Jamie New (Layton Williams). There’s nothing remarkable about him. His careers teacher, Miss Hedge (Lara Denning), predicts a future for him as a forklift truck driver. His friend, Pritti (Sharan Phull), does her best to help him to revise. Sure, class eejit Dean Paxton (George Sampson) enjoys a bit of homophobic bullying, but Jamie doesn’t let it get to him. It’s not like his sexuality is a secret.

He does have a secret though: he knows exactly what he wants to do when he leaves school – and it doesn’t involve any forklift trucks. Jamie wants to be a drag queen. But  Miss Hedge keeps banging on about being realistic, and Jamie doesn’t have the confidence to believe that he can realise his dream. Until his lovely mum (Amy Ellen Richardson) buys him some red high heels for his birthday, and Pritti challenges him to drag up for prom – if that’s what he wants to do.

And Jamie realises he’s going to have to come out for a second time.

This is a heartwarming story by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae, reminiscent of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing in its positive depiction of a young gay man, also called Jamie, loved and supported by his family and friends – although, of course, this one is true. Jamie New experiences very few obstacles: his dad (Cameron Johnson)’s a shit, but so what? He’s got Ray (Shobna Gulati), his mum’s gloriously gobby best mate, who’s always on hand to offer knock-off lippy and sage advice. He doesn’t need his dad. And if Miss Hedge is set against Jamie drawing attention to himself by wearing a dress to prom, clearly the only thing to do is to show her why she’s wrong.

Williams is very appealing in the lead role, and utterly convincing as the conflicted teen, veering between bravado and fear as he works out what kind of adult he wants to be. Shane Richie is hilarious, both as drag shop owner Hugo and his alter ego Loco Chanelle: he’s a seasoned performer with perfect comic timing, and he really knows how to elicit a big laugh. But the standouts are Phull and Gulati: the former’s plaintive singing is beautifully emotive, while the latter’s well-timed profanities are both audacious and refreshing.

It’s a shame the score is kind of meh, with only a couple of notable tunes and no real bangers that linger in the memory. Still, Katie Prince’s lively choreography complements Matt Ryan’s direction well, and I leave the theatre smiling, and glad to see that the real Jamie (Jamie Campbell) is clearly living his best life, posing for photos in a fabulous show gown, a million miles away from a fork lift truck.

 4 stars

Susan Singfield