Theatre

Arctic Oil

11/10/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ella (Neshla Kaplan) is a committed environmental activist, currently stranded on the remote Scottish island where she grew up. She and her infant son have been living near her widowed mother, Margret (Jennifer Black) and she has been going stir crazy. So, under the pretext of visiting London to attend a friend’s wedding, Ella has covertly planned to head off to an Arctic oil rig to join a team of activists in a potentially dangerous protest, leaving Margret to babysit her grandson. But Ella has underestimated Margaret, who is wise to her daughter’s plan and determined to keep her out of harm’s way. With this in mind, she lures Ella into the bathroom of the family home, then promptly locks the door and swallows the key.

What follows is a tightly constructed two-hander as mother and daughter argue, debate the future of the planet and uncover old grievances. Margret is quick to point out that the island on which they live is dependent on oil company investment. The industry provided work for her late husband, when he was in dire financial straits; and besides, instead of trying to change hearts and minds, shouldn’t Ella be more concerned with being a responsible mother to her son?

For Ella, it’s all about the future of that son and the doomed planet on which he’ll be expected to exist. It’s about the destruction of one of the world’s last true wildernesses, the inexorable rise of global warming  – and the fact that if nobody takes a stand on this issue now, then its all headed for hell in a hand basket.

There are two strong performances here and, apart from a  few nitpicks – would news of what’s happened to the oil rig protesters reach the mainstream media quite as promptly as it does, for example – Clare Duffy delivers a prescient tale that raises plenty of important questions. Gareth Nichols directs with a sure hand and I love the ingenious set, designed by Nichols and Kevin McCallum, which is built to withstand the onslaught of Ella’s rigorous attempts to kick her way through that locked door.

Perhaps, ultimately, this is all questions and precious few answers, but it’s nonetheless a thoughtful piece, which arrives at a time when the world has been publicly warned of the dire consequences of global warming. But, at its heart, this is far more about the mother-daughter relationship, and the love that underpins all their differences.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Rebus: Long Shadows

09/10/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s most famous detective is making his theatrical debut, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the iconic character fares in his home town. But we spend all day unsure if the play is going ahead after lead actor Charles Lawson was taken ill on-stage last night – the sort of dramatic twist nobody wants to experience. We wish him a speedy recovery. In the meantime, we’re relieved to hear that understudy Neil McKinven has stepped into the role, and that the show will go on.

Long Shadows is a new, original Rebus story, co-written specifically as a piece of theatre by Ian Rankin and Rona Munro. It’s a sensible decision: instead of shoe-horning a complex novel into a two-hour slot, this tale is suited to its form, and pared down, free of the literary clutter that scuppers so many adaptations. It fits into the novels’ time line though: this is retired Rebus, unable to let the job go, still haunted by the ghosts of all the crimes he didn’t solve.

In this incarnation, though, the ghosts are made flesh, with murdered teenagers Maggie (Eleanor House) and Angela (Dani Heron) given a formidably physical presence, a sort of chorus of the dead. I like this device: it gives the girls a voice, makes them real characters instead of mere victims, showing us their combined strength instead of focusing on their frailty. There’s also wit in using these ghosts as stage hands, making the scene transitions seamless, and emphasising the idea that the girls help shape the narrative.

We’re in cold case territory. DI Siobhan Clarke (Cathy Tyson), Rebus’s longterm sidekick, finally has the chance to see known killer, Mordaunt (played tonight by Andy Paterson), pay for his crimes. Technology has improved, and there’s DNA evidence tying him to Angela’s murder, twenty-five years ago. He’s got away with it so far, and Siobhan is determined not to let any loose ends threaten this opportunity to take him off the streets. She visits Rebus to see what he remembers, to see if he has any idea what the defence might have hidden up its sleeve.

Inevitably, all roads lead to Cafferty, Rebus’s Moriarty, played here with great aplomb by John Stahl. He’s exactly as I imagine him from the books, all machismo and panache, charm and thuggery. And Maggie’s death, seventeen years ago, is woven expertly into the mix, brought to mind by the arrival on Rebus’s stair of her teenage daughter, Heather. It’s a clever plot, with twists and turns that keep me guessing. I can’t deny it’s all quite expositional, a lot of telling-not-showing of the past; we’re watching people sit and talk about events rather than seeing them unfold before our eyes. But it’s enlivened by the presence of those ghosts, the gobby teenagers who won’t be shut up, and by strong performances all round.

McKinven does a sterling job. In the first act, he’s faultless: the role belongs to him. He does have a script in the second act, but he doesn’t refer to it often. It makes sense: the first act is much more of an ensemble piece, and McKinven, in his usual multiple roles, clearly knows this section well. But the latter half is essentially a three-hander between Rebus, Cafferty and Clarke; presumably McKinven has habitually spent this time in his dressing room, relaxing, before appearing briefly in the concluding scene. No matter, the script stuffed into his pocket doesn’t look out of place – Rebus is always carrying case files around. And he only seems to need it to place what’s coming next: he’s acting the dialogue, not reading it. And maybe, by tomorrow, he won’t need it at all. Either Lawson will be back, or McKinven will have learned the lines.

The set, designed by Ti Green, is perhaps my favourite thing about this whole production. I love the simplicity of it, the economy. There are no unnecessary props or pieces of scenery; it’s as uncluttered as the script. But it’s wonderfully evocative: Edinburgh’s tall grey walls and winding paths, tunnels and closes, stairs and bridges, all there at once, their purpose and atmosphere changing with the light. It’s almost breathtaking when the streets of the Old Town are turned instantaneously into a glass penthouse on the Quartermile by the stupidly simple method of lighting the side panels from behind. It’s a revelation as remarkable as those related to the crime.

So, a welcome addition to the Rebus pantheon, and certainly a must-see for fans of the irascible ex-detective.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Calendar Girls the Musical

02/10/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

As the curtains rise at the Festival Theatre, we can’t help but notice that the look of this production has changed considerably since we first saw it in Manchester in January 2015. Back then, Tim Firth’s latest version of this story was known simply as The Girls, and the set comprised a huge heap of lockers, piled higgledy-piggly one on top of another. Now, we find ourselves looking at a rather fabulous Yorkshire landscape, where a stone wall and a gate overlook a surprisingly convincing valley, complete with woodland and a picturesque cottage. At various points, that landscape opens up wider perspectives, as though stretching itself towards new horizons. The script has been worked on too, though it remains unremittingly focused on a small town in Yorkshire and on the close-knit community that lives there. Calendar Girls is, after all, based on real life.

Annie (Anna-Jane Casey)’s husband, John (Phil Corbitt), is suffering from leukaemia. As he goes steadfastly through chemotherapy, assuring his wife that everything will be fine, she relies heavily on her best friend, Chris (Rebecca Storm), and on the local WI, whose meetings are presided over by the officious Marie (Fern Britton, who – despite never having really acted before – is clearly a natural: funny and charismatic in the role). Marie is strictly old school, a  ‘jam and Jerusalem’ diehard who seems intent on keeping her members strictly in line. But, when tragedy inevitably strikes, Chris comes up with a novel way of raising money for a memorial – but how far are the other members of the group prepared to go in order to back her up?

The truth is, we all know exactly how far: the Knapely WI’s nude calendar was an international phenomenon. So there are no surprises here – but that’s really not the point. What we have is a beautifully articulated tale of humanity: of life and death and love and loss, of generations learning to accept each other, and people working together to support one another, through all the trials and tribulations thrown their way.

There’s a real sense here – more signposted than in the previous version – of transience: the seasons’ passing is illustrated by changing light and blossoming trees; there’s a slow recognition that the current crop of teenagers should be allowed their indiscretions, that time will turn them into adults soon enough; they’ll turn out okay, just like their parents have.  It’s a truly heartwarming piece, with community at its core.

The music complements the story perfectly, illuminating the characters’ lives. And it’s memorable too (well, of course it is: if there’s one thing Gary Barlow knows how to do, it’s how to write a hit song). There are melancholy ballads here – the story demands them, and they’re genuinely emotive – but there’s an overwhelmingly upbeat mood to the whole piece, a lively positivity that means we’re smiling through our tears. Not all of the performers are stellar singers, but it’s cleverly cast, so that the most demanding songs are sung by those who really can do them justice, with AJ Casey, Rebecca Storm and Karen Dunbar (Cora, the vicar’s daughter and reluctant organist) all showing they have exactly what it takes. The choral numbers are impressive too.

This is feelgood theatre at its best – and you’re bound to leave the auditorium humming, with the sound of ‘Yorkshire’ in your head.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Rain Man

01/10/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s traditionally been the case that a successful play is turned into a movie but, more recently, there’s been a trend towards the reverse of that process, particularly when it comes to turning comedies into musicals. Happily they’ve decided to play this one straight. Rain Man first saw the light of day in 1988 as a film, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. It was, of course, a huge (and deserved) hit. This version is the inaugural production of ‘Classic Screen to Stage,’ with Ronald Bass’s original screenplay adapted by Dan Gordon. The story retains its 1988 setting, which is a good decision, since the world is now much more aware of autism and those who have the condition are treated far more sympathetically than they once were.

Charlie Babbit Jnr (Ed Speleers) is a hard-nosed automobile salesman operating just on the edge of the law. When we first encounter him, he’s closing a couple of deals over the phone, promising to pay cheques to people on the other end of the line and planning to take his fiancé, Susan (Elizabeth Carter), off for a naughty weekend. But then comes the news that his father has passed away, an event that barely causes him to raise an eyebrow. He and his father have been estranged for years. But, Charlie’s mother being long dead, there is a considerable estate to be handed over so, of course, Charlie and Susan head to the family’s home town for the funeral and the reading of the will.

Charlie is disgusted to find that all he’s been left is his father’s old car and his prized collection of classic roses. The three million dollar estate is to go to an unnamed party. Understandably miffed, Charlie starts doing some digging and soon discovers that he has an older brother he never knew about. Raymond (Mathew Horne) is sequestered in an institution. He is what was then known as an ‘autistic savant.’ Unable to cope with everyday situations, Raymond nevertheless has an incredible ability to remember facts, numbers and images. At first merely interested in getting his hands on half of the estate, Charlie practically kidnaps Raymond and takes him across country towards L.A., meaning to use him as ransom for his demands – but, as the two men spend time together, something suspiciously like brotherly affection begins to blossom between them.

At first, I don’t think I’m going to enjoy this adaptation. The opening scene, which is just people talking to unseen characters on the phone, doesn’t really catch fire. But as soon as Raymond makes an appearance, so the story takes a massive step up. Horne, who seems to have spent the past decade trying to atone for the (admittedly rather dismal) Lesbian Vampire Killers is really rather good in this, and he and Speleers make an engaging double act. Like the  film, there really isn’t that much for the female actors to do, but Carter makes the best of what she’s been given. (Just a thought. Couldn’t one of the doctors featured here have been a woman?)

Morgan Large’s production design is nicely done, all illuminated outsize squares and rectangles that rise up and down to form portals, posters and advertising hoardings, while the various set changes are slickly choreographed to the sound of classic 80s pop songs. The show seems to scamper along so briskly that I am surprised when the interval comes and equally surprised when the show reaches its poignant conclusion.

If you loved the film (and let’s face it, who didn’t?), the chances are you’ll enjoy this too. And thank goodness they’ve not attempted to turn this into Rain Man: The Musical!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Scotties

27/09/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Michael (Ryan Hunter) is fifteen years old, and he’s got homework to do. He’s been told to write an essay on local history, but he’s not sure where to start. The library’s shut because it’s a bank holiday, and his dad (Stephen McCole) is annoyed with him for being so disorganised. There’s tension in the air. Michael’s mum (Mairi Morrison) speaks to him in Gaelic, but Michael responds pointedly in English. He’s feeling rebellious, rejecting his roots. Only his gran seems to understand him.

But then he remembers the plaque at Kirkintilloch, commemorating the young Irish migrant workers – or ‘Scotties’ – who died in a bothy fire in 1937. His interest piqued, he opens up his laptop, and begins to research the conditions in which these people lived…

…and then he’s there, amongst them, working the potato fields with Molly (Faoileann Cunningham) and her compatriots from the island of Achill. He learns about their back-breaking work, about their customs; how they’re treated as outsiders and how they long for home.

And he also learns some uncomfortable truths about his own family.

Scotties – written and conceived by Muireann Kelly and Frances Poet – is a satisfying play, fascinating in its illumination of a moment in history, and uncompromising as it draws parallels with the way migrants are still treated today. Not so much bi-lingual as trilingual (Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and English), this is a clear demonstration of how language shapes us and informs us, links us to our past and our future: it is integral to our sense of self. The scripting is clever – I don’t know any Gaelic, but I can always understand what’s happening; I don’t feel I’m missing out (although, no doubt, there is a deeper resonance for those whose mother tongue this is). Theatre Gu Leòr’s mission to bring Gaelic theatre to a diverse audience is perfectly served by Scotties: it’s accessible and engaging and makes me want to know more.

The play’s structure is effective, like high quality YA fiction brought to life on the stage. Seeing everything from the young protagonist’s point of view means that we can learn with him, and his innocence is beguiling. The music (by Laoise Kelly) is vivid and  atmospheric, taking us from the giddy delights of an impromptu ceilidh down to mournful funereal pipes.

I like the set too: the gossamer-thin gauze between past and present showing how our history never really leaves us, is always there, informing what we do.

Scotties is in Edinburgh until Saturday 29th September – and it’s well worth seeking out. After that, it’s moving on to Achill Island (5th-6th October), where – no doubt – it will have an even more profound impact.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Manpower

26/09/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

As we sit in the semi-darkness, a man in a plaid shirt (Alistair Lownie) is extolling the virtues of expensive stereo systems. He wants to be sure that we don’t allow ‘the salesman in the Next suit’ to fob us off with something inferior. The cables we use are every bit as important as the hardware, he assures us. Whatever we do, we should never use the cables that actually come with the system; they are rubbish! As he talks, the lights come slowly up to reveal a stage that is littered with great chunks of firewood, a table containing a hi-fi and what looks like several items of flatpack furniture. We are in the realms of experimental theatre here, and anyone looking for a straightforward narrative is going to be bitterly disappointed.

Then a woman (Katherina Radeva) appears. She’s dressed in a slinky red dress, her makeup is artlessly overdone and she’s gurning and winking suggestively at the audience. As the man plays a series of MOR tracks, she reveals that she’s a Bulgarian immigrant, and launches into a rambling speech about the history of the UK as it appears to her – all jumbled and confused because of her indiscriminate reading of the news. She is a staunch fan of Mrs Thatcher, concerned about the state of modern masculinity, and is convinced that Brexit is an inevitable result of the proliferation of DIY stores like B & Q and Homebase. Her views are lifted from various publications, but they are awkwardly, sometimes comically, skewed. As the speech progresses, becoming ever more tortuous, the man embarks on a DIY project of his own, building the framework of what looks suspiciously like a man cave and pausing occasionally to cue up the next track – Emerson Lake and Palmer, Elton John, Dire Straits, Pulp…

In truth, I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be taking from this – so I’m glad of the opportunity afterwards to have an informal chat with Lownie and Radeva, who explain how the project came about and what the thinking is behind it. Radeva’s character is intended to be an unreliable narrator, she says. Born in Bulgaria under a Communist dictator and now living in Scotland, Radeva’s background is in performance art, rather than in acting and this is certainly reflected in the chaotic set and the exaggerated posturing.  Lownie’s character, he reveals, is desperately trying to cling on to outmoded aspects of the traditional male role model. A powerful sequence towards the end of the production is nothing more than a string of familiar clichés, each one more vacuous than the last, but performed in this way they seem to offer something of genuine authority.

Two Destination Language’s Manpower is certainly thought-provoking stuff, even if my main thought is ‘what the hell does this all mean?’ I think it’s also quite a brave undertaking by the duo, who have been performing and reshaping this piece for something like two years. When they started, Trump was just coming to power. Now the inexorable approach of Brexit means they are genuinely worried for their future together. Manpower has one more performance at the Traverse before embarking on a nine date tour of the UK.

If it comes your way, do go and see it – and please let us know what you think. I’d be fascinated to hear your opinions. I’m not sure this entirely works, but I’m nonetheless pleased to have had the opportunity to view this uncompromising and challenging production.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney 

The Lottery Ticket

26/09/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh 

We’re always being told that theatre should be as accessible as possible. Few initiatives exemplify this ideal more successfully than the Traverse Theatre’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint seasons. For just £13.50, punters can enjoy an original hour-long piece of theatre, a tasty snack and a drink of their choice. During a grey Edinburgh lunch hour, it’s certainly gratifying to see the auditorium packed with eager theatre-goers, making the most of the opportunity.

The Lottery Ticket, by Donna Franceschild, has the air of a whimsical contemporary fable. Two homeless men wake up after spending the night in somebody’s garden bin shed. They have been violently ejected from a shelter the night before and one of them has sustained serious injuries in the altercation. They are Salih (Nebli Bassani), a Turkish/Kurdish asylum seeker and his friend, Jacek (Steven Duffy), a Polish handyman, now suffering from a couple of broken ribs. Both of them desperately need money  – Jacek to send home to his loved ones and Salih to facilitate his return to his homeland – but neither of them can see a way to solve their respective predicaments.

When Jacek discovers that a current lottery ticket has mysteriously found its way into his pocket, the fervently religious Salih decides that this is a sign from Allah that their luck is about to change for the better. But then they are discovered by house owner, Rhona (Helen Mallon), who has a very pressing need of her own. She’s in desperate need of a plumber but it’s a Saturday and she can’t get anyone to come out to deal with the issue. If only she could find somebody to fix the problem…

Watching this wry and sometimes challenging story play out is a rewarding way to spend an hour. Bassani and Duffy are charismatic performers who make an engaging double act, while Mallon’s character is more acerbic and adds a little acid to the mix. As the two men struggle with the intricacies of her overflowing toilet, we learn more about their backgrounds: about the circumstances that have brought them to where they are today – and we come to appreciate that good fortune can appear in many different guises.

This is a charming and immensely likeable slice of theatre. As I head for the exit afterwards, I can’t help thinking that all lunch times should be as fulfilling as this one.

4 stars

Philip Caveney