Theatre

Goldilocks & the Three Bears

04/12/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s that time again. (Oh no it isn’t!) Well, yes it is actually and, as ever, when you’re talking about pantomime, the King’s Theatre does it better than just about anybody else in the business. This year feels particularly important, as it sees the return to the fold of  panto stalwart Andy Gray, prevented from appearing at last year’s show by serious illness. The extended applause he receives when he walks onstage at the King’s for Goldilocks & the Three Bears is heartwarming, to say the very least.

It feels as though the whole enterprise has had a bit of a reinvention this year. For starters there’s no mention of Christmas, and not a glimpse of the white-bearded man in the red suit. Instead, the theme here is the circus – the greatest show on earth – which gives the producers the perfect opportunity to throw a couple of high class circus acts into the mix. There’s a superb juggler, Alfio, who does things with hats you won’t quite believe, and The Berserk Riders, a motorcycle stunt troupe, who whirl dangerously around inside a metal globe. At one point, they literally have me holding my breath and crossing my fingers.

The plot: Dame May McReekie (Allan Stewart) and her husband, Andy (the aforementioned Mr Gray), run a circus where all the animals are allowed to run free. Meanwhile, their daughter, Goldilocks (Gillian Parkhouse), sings up a storm, and is all too aware that Joey the Clown (Jordan Young) is carrying a torch for her.

But not all circuses are quite so charming. Baron Von Vinklebottom (Grant Stott, channeling Boy George) runs a rival enterprise, where he keeps his animals in cages and enjoys brutalising them at every opportunity. Boooo! When he claps eyes on the three talking bears who are to be the McReekie’s new headliners, he obviously wants them for his own show. Much hilarity ensues – and I really mean that. There are times here where I’m laughing so hard I have tears in my eyes and it’s mostly the result of the skilful interplay between the three lead players. Stewart in particular is a consumate comedy powerhouse.

As ever, the razzamatazz is cranked up to number eleven – and the lush production values on display challenge anything you’ll find in London’s West End. It’s also heartening to witness how subversive this uniquely British art form can be. Where else will you find silly humour aimed squarely at the youngsters, punctuated by risqué remarks about Prince Andrew and other topical subjects, directed at their parents? Whatever happens to hit the zeitgeist is picked up and added to the brew.

And of course, this being set in the world of the circus, there are animals galore – elephants, giraffes, monkeys and (naturally) bears, all lovingly rendered amidst a joyful  onslaught of sound, colour and general exuberance.

If a top quality pantomime is what you’re looking for, your search is over.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Strange Tales

03/12/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Strange Tales is clearly a passion project. Pauline Lockhart – who co-directs, co-wrote and co-stars in the production – was looking for a venture that could combine three perennial bedfellows (folk tales, the supernatural and, naturally, martial arts), when she came across Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. In collaboration with Ben Harrison, and supported by a whole raft of partners, including the Confucius Institute for Scotland and the RSC, she has created a quirky, dreamlike piece of theatre that lingers in the mind long after the applause.

Lockhart resolves any notion of cultural appropriation, both by being upfront in asking, “Is it okay for me to tell these tales?” and – more importantly – by casting Chinese and Malaysian Chinese actors Luna Dai and Robin Khor Yong Kuan to work alongside her. This three-hander, set on a stage that breaches the first few rows, breaks the fourth wall in a casual, almost familial way, as the performers tell us what the tales mean to them. For Lockhart, they are a recent discovery, but Dai remembers her grandmother telling them to her, while Kuan not only read the book, but watched a TV adaptation too. ‘Everyone knows Pu Songling, right?’ he asks us, the tumbleweed response making us confront a simple truth – that borders limit our knowledge.

There’s a delightful playfulness to this production, with humour taking precedence over terror. The tales are, indeed, quite strange, with ghosts and demons and fox-spirits moving between the living and the dead with apparent ease. The three actors perform a whole host of roles with consummate skill, and the action is cleverly enhanced by puppetry, video and choreographed movement. The sound effects are spectacular, and there’s a little bit of magic or illusion too, with a couple of vanishing acts that genuinely bewilder me. How did they…? Huh?

These are morality tales without obvious morals, highly entertaining and most unusual (to me, and this Scottish audience, at least). I’ve never seen anything quite like them.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol

29/11/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Does anything embody the theme of Christmas more perfectly than a generous helping of Charles Dickens? A Christmas Carol remains one of his most popular books – indeed, the images it contains pretty much sum up the British public’s entire concept of Christmas. Victorian costumes, decorated trees, festive feasts and of course, copious snow tumbling from the heavens. Tony Cownie’s spirited retelling of the story adds an extra ingredient: Edinburgh. And it works like a charm.

Actually, there’s solid reasoning behind this addition. There’s evidence to suggest that Dickens found inspiration for his most enduring character during a visit to Canongate Churchyard, where he spotted a tombstone commemorating a certain Ebenezer Scroggie, and even made a note about it as a potential character name for future use. Sadly, the gravestone is no longer there (lost during restorations in 1932), but Dicken’s inventive story still dazzles.

In An Edinburgh Christmas Carol, Scrooge (Crawford Logan) is a dour, curmudgeonly man, forever sneering and rolling his eyes at his good natured clerk, Rab Cratchit (Ewan Donald), and nimbly avoiding all who ask him for contributions to good causes. This sprightly version sticks fairly closely to the original story, but throws in a local legend in the furry shape of Greyfriar’s Bobby, still sleeping on his master’s grave, and in danger of being banned from the city for want of a licence. Would Ebenezer like to contribute to the cost of buying one? Bah! Humbug!

The addition of Bobby is a bit of a master stroke. This is the most family-friendly festive offering we’ve seen at the Lyceum, and the youngsters in tonight’s audience are clearly entranced by the puppet versions of Bobby and Tiny Tim. It’s not all lighthearted. There are those pesky ghosts, for starters. A little girl sitting behind me finds the presence of a headless drummer momentarily overwhelming, but she’s soon back to being delighted by all she sees.

There’s also plenty for older audience members to enjoy, not least the gorgeous set design by Neil Murray, which captures the somber beauty of Edinburgh, and when combined with Zoe Spurr’s dramatic lighting shows off the city to great effect. There’s humour too in the witty dialogue, and those who enjoy a festive singalong are well served by the presence of the Community Choir, who offer a series of rousing carols throughout the production. What else do we need to create a perfect Christmas treat? You want snow? You’ve got it!

Even a dedicated Scrooge like me emerges from this production with a warm glow inside (and I swear it’s not just the mulled wine!). Christmas cheer seems to be in rather short supply this year, so why not head on up to the Lyceum for a much-needed top up? I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the experience.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Alex & Eliza

13/11/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Alex & Eliza, written and performed by Umar Butt, is inspired by the true story of his grandparents, who give the play its title. Zubair (Butt) works in a corner shop in Glasgow. Raised a muslim, he obeys the strict rules of his religion in public, but secretly enjoys playing music when he’s alone and even plans to audition for an amateur production of Fame. He also strikes up an unlikely friendship with a troubled alcoholic customer (Danny Charles), who regularly calls to the shop for cigarettes and booze.

When his parents head off to Manchester to attend a muslim convention, Zubair is handed the job of picking up his grandmother, Eliza (Seweryna Dudzińska), at the airport and looking after her for a few days. Zubair is astonished to learn that this enigmatic white woman is also an accomplished musician and, after playing him some traditional tunes on a harmonium, she tells him her story: how she and her Sikh husband, Alex, endured  the harsh rigours of partition in 1946, and how they were obliged to change their religions in order to survive.

There’s no doubting the sincerity of Butt’s story and this works best when we are watching the misadventures of the titular duo, particularly during their desperate attempts to flee India for Pakistan. Other scenes feel somewhat less assured (a couple of lengthy interludes between Zubair and his freewheeling friend feel like an intrusion on the more compelling central story). And, like so many true-life tales, there are elements here that really are stranger than fiction. Eliza’s introduction to the young man who will become her husband is a good case in point. As it stands, it doesn’t entirely convince. Eliza’s father seems to happily hand his daughter over to a complete stranger.

Still, there are many powerful moments throughout the play and the onstage action is augmented by the presence of musician Laura Stutter, who, under the musical direction of Ross Clark, adds evocative flourishes on guitar and keyboards, as well as interracting with the other characters. Dudzińska offers stirring vocals at key moments – she has an extraordinary voice.

At the play’s heartfelt conclusion, Butt is reduced to tears and a quick glance around the audience confirms that he’s not alone.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Cabaret

06/11/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

I think I know Cabaret because I’ve seen the movie. I love the movie. But tonight, at the Festival Theatre, I quickly learn that the stage version is very different. At first I’m disappointed. One of the things I like most about the movie is that it’s a musical where the songs are all supposed to be songs, performed in a club or at a rally. Here, characters sing instead of speaking, break into song to declare their love. In short, it’s a more traditional musical. And, as it goes on, I come to appreciate it.

Cabaret the movie is very much Sally Bowles’ story – and, of course, it’s Liza Minelli’s film. Here, Sally (Kara Lily Hayworth) has to share the limelight with two other leads: Emcee (John Partridge) and Fräulein Schneider (Anita Harris). It’s New Year’s Eve, a breath away from 1931; we’re in Berlin – and American wannabe novelist, Cliff (Charles Hagerty), is seeking inspiration.  At the train station, he meets the charming, erudite Ernst Ludwig (Nick Tizzard), who recommends Fräulein Schneider’s boarding house, and arranges to meet him at the bawdy Kit Kat Club, where English Sally is a dancer. It’s an intoxicating, hedonistic place,  but – even within these walls – the creeping march of Nazism cannot be avoided forever…

The choreography (by Javier de Frutos) is stunning: sexy, vibrant, funny and spectacular. Indeed, in the first act, the big number club scenes almost eclipse the story. Standout routines include the lewdly hilarious Two Ladies and the unsettling Tomorrow Belongs to Me. The orchestra are integrated with the action, on an upper tier, visible when we’re in the Kit Kat Club, but otherwise behind a screen. This works well, implying that they’re employees of the club.

The relationship between Sally and Cliff seems a bit muted, which makes sense, I suppose, as – in this version – she’s only staying with him because she’s lost her job and has nowhere else to go. Of course, he’s gay and she’s not one for commitment, so it was never going to be a forever thing, but I would like to see a bit more spark. Otherwise, Hayworth makes a lovely Sally – all wit and vivacity, with a beautiful singing voice – and Hagerty does a decent job as Cliff.

The storyline between the elderly Fräulein Schneider and her beau, Herr Schulz (James Paterson), is particularly emotive, their tentative steps towards romance thwarted by anti-Semitism. Harris and Paterson are nicely understated in these roles: they show the fortitude of those who’ve learned not to expect much; they’ve already survived one war and lived through hyper-inflation. Their pragmatism is heartbreaking, and provides an interesting counterpoint to both Cliff’s naïve idealism and Sally’s determined ignorance.

The second act is more compelling than the first: by now, we care about the characters, and the Nazi undercurrent is getting stronger. Partridge’s Emcee is getting visibly more edgy, his playfulness takes on a desperate tone. And we watch, horrified, as it all unravels, waiting for the inevitable horror we know must come.

The final scene is awful in the truest sense; it’s a powerful set piece, exemplifying Rufus Norris’ directing prowess. I won’t describe it here, because I think its impact relies on some element of surprise; suffice to say, the applause is accompanied by a sense of unease, the usual whoops and cheers that follow a rumbustious musical take a little while to erupt. And it takes a craftsman to achieve that.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

 

The Exorcist

05/11/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Pah! Who needs to see a bonfire and fireworks in November in Edinburgh? There’s a surfeit in August and at New Year – and The Exorcist is on at the King’s. Yes, The Exorcist. So how can I resist that?

William Peter Blatty’s 1971 schlocky horror story seems quite old-fashioned now, but it’s still pretty compelling. For those who’ve never read the book or seen the film, it’s about a girl called Regan (Susannah Edgley), who – on her twelfth birthday – is possessed by a demon. Her film star mother, Chris (Sophie Ward), is at a loss: what has happened to her sweet daughter? She calls in doctors and psychiatrists, but they make little progress. So Chris appeals to the Catholic church, begging them to arrange an exorcism. Father Merrin (Paul Nicholas) has met Regan’s demon before, and the battle to save her is a brutal one. Pubescent girls are a recurring theme for horror writers, from Snow White (and yes, I contend that is a horror) to Carrie, but Blatty’s depiction of emerging sexuality is the least subtle I know. I’m pleased to report that this adaptation doesn’t shy away from the more blatantly shocking elements, indulging the demon’s potty-mouth and the misuse of Christian imagery. Bravo.

Technically, this production is very good indeed. The lights (by Philip Gladwell) are utilised to excellent effect, blinding the audience during some jump scares, and creating a queasy, uncomfortable atmosphere. Likewise the sound (by Adam Cork), which perpetuates a sense of uneasiness throughout. The special effects are cunningly achieved, and the timing of the voiceovers is impressively precise. This ensures the all-important scare factor, without which this play would die a death.

There are some issues though. The set, although it looks magnificent, seems unnecessarily complicated, with stairs leading up to a bedroom that is clearly beneath them. I like the two-storey idea, and both the stairs and the attic space accommodate important dramatic moments, but the pointless complexity of the lounge and bedroom being on separate floors is both disorientating and distracting.

There are also a few too many characters. In the novel and film versions, this doesn’t feel like a problem, but here, the stage feels cluttered with people who don’t add much to the tale. Both Joseph Wilkins (Father Joe) and Stephen Billington (Dr Strong) perform well, but their presence seems extraneous.

The second act is tighter than the first, maybe because the story is more distilled here, and there’s less of a disconnect between the highly technical production and the hokey dialogue and plot.

Whatever. It’s not perfect. But it’s a genuinely engaging, scary piece of theatre – and that’s not easy to achieve.

3.7 stars

Susan Singfield

Hope and Joy

01/11/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ellie Stewart’s Hope and Joy is a quirky, absurdist piece of whimsy, set in a near future where environmental change has wrought a radical shift in nature. A shift so radical, in fact, that the opening scene shows Hope (Kim Gerard) giving birth to an egg. The father is a Whooper swan, we learn, and her son, Magnus (Ryan Havelin), a human-swan hybrid – costumed, delightfully, in a fabulous winged hoody. Hospital cleaner Joy (Beth Marshall) sees the boy’s ability to fly as a definite plus-point, but – as he grows up – the kids at school are less accepting of his differences. Hanging out with a gang of dissolute pigeons only makes things worse, and Magnus soon realises he needs to spread his wings (sorry…), and seek the company of others who are more like him.

It’s a fun play with some serious points underlying the humour, such as the letter Joy receives regarding her mum’s social care. The melting ice caps are, of course, a real cause for concern, and this fantastical imagining of where we might end up serves to highlight how unknown and precarious our planet’s future is. Themes of friendship, parenthood, otherness and isolation are also clear throughout, although rather superficially explored.

Becky Minto’s set is as wonderful as you might expect if you’ve seen her work before: a jagged white hospital bed/house/pole -dancing stage surrounded by stark black tree trunks. Caitlin Skinner’s direction is lively and dynamic, and – for the most part – works in harmony with the set, although I’m not convinced by the actors crouching off-stage, half-hidden in the woods; I think they need to be either properly concealed or more explicitly visible.

The performances are strong: Gerard and Marshall inhabit their roles effectively, creating bold, sympathetic characters, and Havelin is engagingly awkward as the diffident teenage bird-boy. The section in the pole-dancing club is less believable however: it’s an interesting twist, but the posing and spinning need to be more carefully choreographed, and delivered with more precision and control if they’re to be convincing.

Hope and Joy is throughly entertaining and an absolute pleasure to watch: an enjoyable way to spend an hour.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield