Theatre

The Enemy

20/10/21

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Ooh. I’m VERY excited about this one. I’m an avid admirer of Ibsen – what self-respecting theatre-lover isn’t? I’m in awe of the way he combines theatrical innovation and political conviction with accessible story-telling. I’m also a fan of Kieran Hurley’s work (Chalk Farm, Mouthpiece and Beats are all excellent), so I’m fascinated to see what he and director Finn den Hertog do with the Norwegian’s masterpiece, An Enemy of the People.

In fact, Hurley doesn’t change much at all, plot-wise. This 140-year-old play is uncannily prescient. The difference is all on the surface: in the modes of communication, and the cadence of the dialogue – and it’s beautifully done. The story shifts easily to a contemporary “once-great Scottish town,” where a new spa resort promises regeneration, and offers hope to the poor and dispossessed who live there. But Dr Kirsten Stockmann (Hannah Donaldson) is concerned: a sickness bug is spreading, and she’s almost certain the town’s water supply has been contaminated. But how? Could blame lie with council-approved shortcuts, aimed at bringing forward the resort’s opening? Maybe. If so, it’s more than a little awkward, because the provost is Kirsten’s sister, Vonny (Gabriel Quigley). Still, surely she will be grateful for the heads up, pleased to be able to avert a public health disaster, no matter what the cost? But no. Vonny has no qualms: without the resort, the people have nothing. They’re not sick because of poison, she tells her sister; they’re sick because they’re poor. She has a point.

Although the story remains unchanged, the staging is bang up-to-date: video designer Lewis den Hertog has created a multi-media piece à la Katie Mitchell, with ‘live cinema’ (where the onstage action is filmed and projected simultaneously onto a large screen) a key feature. There are pre-filmed sequences too, such as a jarringly upbeat advert for the new resort, and a series of enthusiastic vox pops on the local news. And there are text messages, and YouTube videos, and Skype and BTL comments a-plenty. It’s Ibsen with all the socials. It works. There’s a dizzying sense of things spiralling out of control, with Kirsten in the middle, alone, holding on to the damning test result – a dreadful talisman.

But Kirsten isn’t quite alone. She might have broken ties with her sister; her friend, Benny (Neil McKinven), and local celeb, Aly (Taqi Nazeer), might have sidled away – but her teenage daughter, Petra (Eléna Redmond) is firmly on her side. And so, perhaps, is Derek Kilmartin (Billy Mack), who has a proposal for Kirsten to consider…

It’s wonderful to see creative theatre projects taking shape again (I’ve nothing against old favourites, and it’s clear to see why theatres are being cautious post-pandemic, but it’s definitely time for something new). This particular project seems like a canny move, combining Ibsen’s timeless appeal with something bold and fresh. It’s almost guaranteed to get bums on seats, while simultaneously allowing playmakers the chance to experiment. Good call!

For the most part, it pays off. I have a little trouble hearing some of the dialogue, especially in the first act. I’m sitting quite far back in the stalls, which might have something to do with it, but I wonder if it’s more about the actors delivering their lines to cameras rather than to the auditorium. But this is my only gripe. The performances are natural and convincing, the relationships well-defined.

The message is clear: the truth matters, however unpalatable. It’s a timely homily. We need to heed the experts. The only problem is, we all think we’re Kirsten Stockmann.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield


The Woman in Black

12/10/21

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’m somewhat amazed to realise that this is actually the fourth time I’ve seen this play – but it’s one I somehow never tire of watching. Its beauty lies in its simplicity, and in the late Stephen Mallatratt’s canny adaptation of Susan Hill’s gothic chiller. It’s proof if ever it were needed that a decent novel can be elevated by the way it’s interpreted on the stage. While The Woman in Black incorporates all the tropes of the traditional ghost story, the staging still – thirty years after its debut performance – feels fresh and innovative.

Something bad happened to Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale) back down the years and, in an attempt to purge himself of those memories, he has decided to do a performance of it in a down-at-heel theatre, just for friends and family. He has engaged the services of ‘The Actor’ (Anthony Eden) to help him bring this about, but the latter is horrified by Kipp’s stilted attempts at reading and, in a moment of inspiration, he suggests that the two men should swap roles. He will play Kipps, while the older man will portray a number of supporting characters.

And so the rehearsal begins and we are inexorably drawn into the story of Kipps as a younger man, when he was a solicitor, engaged to go to Eel Marsh House in a remote spot on the North East coast of England. There he is to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow – and to settle her estate. It doesn’t help his mood to discover that the house can only be reached via a causeway that will leave him trapped alone in the place for hours at a time. As he goes about his mundane duties, it begins to dawn on him that all is not as it should be – and he learns that the area is haunted by the titular character, a woman intent on seeking revenge for tragic events that happened in the past.

Robert Herford directs with consummate skill, using shadows and sounds and an oppressive atmosphere to conjure an sense of mounting dread. Michael Holt’s exquisite set design keeps finding new places to explore: hidden within what first appears to be a one dimensional setting is a meticulously detailed child’s playroom, a white-shrouded cemetery, a ghastly silhouetted staircase. And has so much apprehension ever been generated from the simple device of a door that can’t be opened – until it opens itself?

It’s all wonderfully evocative. Of course, the fact that I’m so familiar with the play inevitably means that some of the jump-scares are less effective than they were on first viewing. I find myself envious of those undertaking this theatrical thrill ride for the first time.

Some plays are classics for very good reasons. If you’ve never experienced The Woman in Black, here’s your opportunity to sample its twisted delights. Don’t have nightmares.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Looking Good Dead

05/10/21

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Superintendent Roy Grace is the protagonist of Peter James’ popular police procedurals – a diligent but troubled policeman, who’ll stop at nothing to solve a case. In Shaun McKenna’s stage adaptation of the second novel, Looking Good Dead, Grace (Harry Long) is relegated to a supporting role. Instead, the focus here is on the Bryce family, inadvertently caught up in a terrible crime. I think this is a wise move; they, after all, form the crux of the story.

Top of the bill, therefore, are soap favourites Adam Woodyatt and Gaynor Faye, as Tom and Kellie Bryce. They enjoy an affluent, suburban life. Tom works; Kellie cleans a lot; their teenage sons, Joe and Max (Luke Ward-Wilkinson), are – respectively – in Venezuela climbing mountains and on the sofa listening to silence through NOISE CANCELLING HEADPHONES. Did you get that? NOISE CANCELLING HEADPHONES. I’ll mention them again anyway, just in case. (Director Jonathan O’Boyle is clearly a fan of Chekhov’s, holding dear the great playwright’s principle: if, in the first act a character has worn noise cancelling headphones, then in the following act, someone must fail to hear something important.) It all seems fine and dandy until a stranger leaves a memory stick on Tom’s commuter train. Tom makes the rash decision to bring it home; he plans to play the good Samaritan by tracking down its owner and ensuring its return. However, when Max plugs the stick into Tom’s computer, it reveals a link… to a murder. Happening in real time before their eyes. What have they been witness to? And what will the killer do when he realises he’s been seen?

Woodyatt and Faye inhabit their characters convincingly, and I especially enjoy Ian Haughton’s performance as the enigmatic Kent. I like Sergeant Branson (Leon Stewart)’s bad jokes, and the way Grace responds to them; this shift in tone works well to undercut some of the more histrionic scenes. The way Michael Holt’s set design incorporates the villain’s lair as well as the Bryces’ home is ingenious, and I am especially impressed with the decisive way the lighting is used to move us from one to the other at the flick of a switch.

There are some issues though – and the main one is the plot. Quite frankly, it’s risible. I’m more than happy to suspend my disbelief, but this stretches the elastic beyond its capacity. I’m unconvinced by any of the characters’ motivations, and am aghast at the ineptitude of the police, who keep politely agreeing to step outside so that suspected serial killers can have a private chat. And why exactly does everyone keep talking and revealing secrets in a room they’ve been told, quite clearly, is bugged? And why exactly exactly is it being bugged in the first place?

In addition, the police station set seems clumsy in comparison to the slick kitchen/lair: it’s pushed on and pulled off with wearisome regularity, and is so small that the actors seem constrained by it. There’s no space for movement, and they lean and perch awkwardly as they deliver their lines. I’m not a fan of the bigger action scenes either; the direction here just isn’t dynamic or fleet-footed enough.

So yes, there are problems. But do I enjoy myself? Yes, I do. Looking Good Dead might be silly but it’s entertaining, and I am more than happy to be back in the environs of the lovely King’s Theatre.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

Grease

29/09/21

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

We’ve been denied the magic of theatre for far too long… so what’s the ideal production to get us back in our seats, clapping our hands and grinning behind our face masks? I put it to you that Grease is a pretty sound option. It has everything you need for a guaranteed good time – brash, funny and shot through with a heady mix of nostalgia. What’s not to like? And, what’s more, where most big musicals can offer you four or five great numbers, Grease is packed with wall-to-wall, solid gold, five-star bangers. A couple of chords into that memorable theme song and I’m already sold.

We all know the story of course. Prim, virginal Sandy Dumbrowski (Georgia Louise) arrives at Rydell High School having already spent a summer being romanced by handsome Danny Zucco (Dan Partridge) – but he finds it hard to be romantic in front of the other members of his gang, so a troubled courtship ensues. Those who only know the story from the movie version may be surprised to discover that this production, based on the original musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, is quite different from that familiar screenplay. This slick, adrenalin-fuelled adaptation gallops effortlessly from scene to scene and is at its finest in the ensemble dance numbers where Arlene Philips’s nifty choreography has the whole cast hoofing up a storm.

We also have Peter Andre in the dual role as disc jockey Vince Fontaine (cunningly housed in a circular booth at the top left of the stage) and as the Teen Angel, where he delivers a delightful version of Beauty School Dropout to Frenchy (Marianna Nedfitou). Andre might appear to be stunt casting, but he’s terrific in this production and a moment where he holds a top note for what seems an impossibly long time is proof that he possesses an accomplished singing voice – as does Georgia Louise who gives a super-powered rendition of Hopelessly Devoted to You.

There are also some memorable visual motifs. A scene where Danny and Sandy watch a drive in movie in glorious 3D is a particular delight.

If the first half is good, the second is even better – and the finale, where the cast lead us through a spirited singlalong of the best known songs has the entire audience up on its feet, clapping and stamping out the rhythms. I don’t mind admitted to being quite emotional at this point. I’ve missed live theatre so much and it’s just great to be back, relishing the shared experience. we’ve all been longing for.

So if you’re looking for a guaranteed good night out, Grease is the word!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Charlie and Stan

17/09/21

The Lowry, Salford Quays

Told by an Idiot’s Charlie and Stan is a charmingly whimsical piece, a musing on what might have happened when Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel first met – as cabin-mates on a steamer bound for New York, both members of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. Fittingly, it’s a largely silent piece of theatre, reliant on mime, music and physical comedy.

The performances are as peppy as you’d expect from Told by an Idiot, and it’s a fascinating premise. There is lots of potential for silly jokes and tomfoolery, which writer/director Paul Hunter enables his ensemble cast to utilise to full advantage. The choreography (by Nuna Sandy) is sharp, and the movement (courtesy of Jos Houben) is precise, as it needs to be in a piece like this. Danielle Bird’s Chaplin is glorious, all verve and spirit, while Jerone Marsh-Reid’s Laurel personifies sweetness and likability. The piano and drum accompaniment (Sara Alexander and Nick Haverson) works well too, and I like how it’s incorporated into the action.

I am also impressed by Ioana Curelea’s set: the wonky ship’s interior and hanging bunk beds contribute to the sense of impermanence and making do.

There’s so much to admire here, and yet – for me – it doesn’t quite come off. I think it’s to do with the tech. I need lighting that directs my eye; some of the physical jokes don’t land because I don’t know where I’m supposed to be looking, and simple sound effects to underscore some of the more obscure punchlines would also be helpful. Without these guides, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the business of the stage, and I miss a lot in the mayhem.

I’m also unconvinced by the flashback and flash forward sequences. The former – depicting Chaplin’s troubled childhood – seems tonally wrong. It’s a weighty topic, but it’s depicted in exactly the same way as the rest of the piece; I feel it needs to be markedly different. The latter just seems grafted on: Haverson’s portrayal of Oliver Hardy is uncannily accurate, but the scene doesn’t fit with the rest of the story.

So, for me, this is a bit of a mixed bag. A nice idea, a pleasant way to spend an evening, and some undeniably strong performances but, in the end, a little disappointing.

3.4 stars

Susan SIngfield

Myra’s Story

26/08/21

Palais du Variete, Assembly, George Square Gardens, Edinburgh

Myra’s Story is a compelling play, and Fíonna Hewitt-Twamley is perfectly cast, delivering the ninety-minute monologue with wit and aplomb.

Myra’s story is a commonplace tragedy: she’s an alcoholic on the streets of Dublin, drinking to numb herself, to mask her problems. But, in the words of John Irving (and, later, Voice of the Beehive), ‘sorrow floats’ – and Myra soon discovers that she can’t drown her emotions in vodka. Instead, her troubles multiply, and she finds herself homeless, stumbling from hostel to park bench and back again. She’s the woman on the street from whom we avert our collective gaze, but here, in Brian Foster’s play, we are forced to look. To listen. To learn about the person behind the bottle. To see that she is just like us.

Hewitt-Twamley’s performance is flawless; she has a particular gift for eliciting empathy, as well as for delivering an impressive range of other voices. Foster’s writing is strong, and the story matters (it’s wonderful to see that the production has two Edinburgh homelessness charities as partners, namely Social Bite and Steps to Hope).

There’s only one problem here, and it’s the venue.

This is an intimate but popular play, which always poses a conundrum: it’s difficult to find a space that can accommodate a large audience as well as allowing the personal, confidential nature of the material to shine. Some compromise is needed. However, the Palais du Variete is not a compromise: it’s just wrong. It’s a huge brash place, gorgeously mirrored and with a large bar area, perfect for a late night variety show, and utterly wrong for a lunchtime monologue. There’s a party-vibe that seems at odds with the play; this is surely a piece that demands our full attention, but most people are clearly out for a laugh, knocking back pints of beer or glasses of wine, and there are loads of latecomers, trooping past us again and again, obscuring our view. Then there’s the endless trips to the bar and the toilet, causing further disruption, so we keep missing little moments and nuances.

I’m also irritated, I have to admit, by the fact that there are is no mention (beyond a pre-recorded line that everyone talks over) of the fact that masks are still a legal requirement here in Scotland, and that – apart from when people are actually drinking – they should be worn throughout the performance. Almost every other Fringe venue (including other Assembly sites) has someone on the door politely reminding people, and the vast majority comply. Here, it’s ignored, and the audience take their cue from that. It doesn’t feel particularly safe.

So there’s a disconnect between the quality of the play and the quality of the experience. The star rating below is for an excellent script, delivered with consummate skill. But I won’t be going back to the Palais du Variete.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

It All

25/08/21

Assembly, Roxy

There are some shows on the Fringe that seem to defy description. But, I’m a writer, so I’ll give it my best shot.

I really don’t know what to expect from It All – and I’ll confess, when Cameron Cook strides onto the stage dressed as a mime, I fear the worst. Oh dear. Is it going to be one of those shows? You know what I’m talking about, the ones where a performer struts and frets for a weary hour, full of (no) sound and fury, signifying nothing…

Mr Cook launches into a piece of prose poetry, something about the human condition and I mentally prepare myself for something very po-faced. But then, quite without warning, he breaks off, glances at the silent musician in the corner of the stage and then begins to talk to an imaginary director. It doesn’t feel right, he says, the mood’s not there, he’s going to have to start over…

And the pomposity is instantly undercut. I’m chuckling at the absurdity of it. Cook begins again… and I find myself being pulled into his world.

And here’s the thing. The man is an extraordinary performer. He’s… well, the only word that really fits is ‘mesmerising.’ The eerie piece of performance art that unfolds is an extraordinary tour de force. Cook, it turns out, has many characters lurking within him and they have a tendency to hijack whatever he’s saying, wrenching him headlong from one outpouring to another. One instant he’s a sneering CEO explaining his brutal work ethic, how money is the key to everything in life. The next he’s a little girl talking with absolute adoration about her pet dog. In each case he’s utterly convincing, every mannerism, every gesture perfectly executed. A conversation between a little boy and his father is so brilliantly observed, I feel almost breathless as I watch the two disparate characters interacting with each other. And, it’s very funny. I find myself laughing at so many of these people, sometimes because I’m appalled by them, sometimes because there are qualities I recognise that strike too close to home.

The physicality of the performance is also astonishing – at times every muscle in Cook’s body seems to pulsate with energy as he encapsulates whoever is holding him hostage. He sings, he dances, he whirls and twists around the stage in paroxysms of rage and frustration. Sometimes, it feels as though the services of an exorcist might be required.

In the end, I decide that I’m never entirely sure what It All is about, but that it hardly matters, because what I’m being shown is the diversity of humanity, the many personae that lie beneath what an individual is prepared to show to the world – and, whatever Cook is trying to tell us, he does it with such intensity, such control, that the result is frankly riveting. The hour’s running time seems to flash by. As Cook and musician, Clare Parry, take their bows, the audience is mostly on its feet, applauding madly, but I’m sitting there stunned, still trying to assimilate everything I’ve just watched.

There are only three more opportunities to catch this and I’d advise you to grab some tickets while you still can.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Shook

22/08/21

theSpaceUK Triplex, Edinburgh

It’s easy to see why Samuel Bailey’s Shook won the 2019 Papatango New Writing Prize, and why it garnered so much attention on its debut. It’s a beautifully written piece, full of warmth and humour: a brutal exposé of a society that condemns some people to the scrapheap almost from birth, and – at the same time – a heartbreakingly intimate tale.

Twisted Corner’s production does the material proud. Cain (Kieran Begley), Ryan (Ryan Stoddart) and Jonjo (William Dron) are young offenders. They’re also young fathers – or they’re about to be. Grace (Rebecca Morgan, who also directs) is their new teacher, running weekly parenting classes, hoping to help them break the cycle, to give their children a better start than any of them ever had – and to give them something to look forward to.

It’s an uphill battle. Of course it is. The odds are stacked against these boys. They have to negotiate so much just to get by: it’s a pitiless life, with obstacles at every turn. There’s a pecking order, and other people’s anger to endure – and that’s just inside. Outside, they know, is a world that doesn’t want them, that never wanted them; what is there to go home to, if they ever do get out?

The direction here is spot on: Morgan creates an atmosphere of absolute authenticity. The performances are nuanced and complex, each character fully realised. It’s emotionally draining – I’m laughing, then crying, then laughing again. Begley, in particular, has me on edge, Cain’s jangly, unpredictable energy making me fearful as well as sad. And all the time, I’m just hoping against hope that the boys will find the happy endings I know will elude them.

This is a stunning piece all round: the writing, direction and performances combine to create something really powerful and yet humbling. What we have here, in the end, is a fascinating examination of masculinity and fatherhood, and a tentative step towards redemption.

I have no criticism. None. This is note-perfect.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Punch, with Johnny

21/08/21

Army@theFringe, Edinburgh

It’s 1946 and, in a backstreet pub in the Gorbals, two Scottish legends meet face-to-face. The first is former world flyweight boxing champion, Benny Lynch (Sam Fraser), once an idol of many fight-fans, now fallen on hard times and descending into alcoholism. The other is infamous career thief, Johnny Ramensky (Conor Ferns), safe-cracker, escape artist and unlikely war hero – he’s only here because he’s hiding out from the cops.

The two men settle down with bottles of the hard stuff and start to exchange notes. The Barman (Gerard Rogan), is occasionally called upon to referee the proceedings and… who is that grim-faced authority figure sitting motionless at the back of the stage?

Punch, with Johnny, written and directed by Paul Moore, is a bruising appraisal of the lives of two real life characters with what would at first appear to be very different career trajectories – but as the story unfolds, those differences increasingly blur. Is it really heroic to punch an opponent to the ground? Or to repeatedly commit crimes and refuse to accept punishment for them? And ultimately, are these men to be admired…or pitied? After all, their glory days are behind them. All that’s left now is a slow slide into the abyss

This is convincingly acted by the two leads, but it’s very much a static ‘tell don’t show’ piece of theatre – I’d like to have seen more action, more movement – and when the nameless authority figure (Paul Wilson) has little to do but pass a series of criminal sentences on Ramensky, his presence starts to feel superfluous. What’s more, having read up on the careers of the two men, I can’t help feeling that there’s so much towards the end of their lives that would make for a more challenging play. Lynch in particular went to some very dark places when his boxing career was over but the script steers clear of them.

As it stands, Punch, with Johnny feels like something of a missed opportunity. It lands a few decent blows but fails to deliver a knock out.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Skank

18/08/21

Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh

Skank is a surprise. I’m expecting a wry look at Millennial life, and – to some extent – that’s what I get. Clementine Bogg-Hargroves plays Kate, a young woman flitting from one temping job to the next, dreaming of being a writer but hardly ever actually writing anything. She won’t commit to a ‘proper’ job because the thought of it fills her with dread. She has nothing in common with her colleagues, but they seem to like her: she’s funny and sparky, and even has a crush on one of them. But Kate’s real life happens outside the office: in trendy coffee shops and pubs; in too much booze and one-night-stands; in knitting classes and doctor’s appointments.

Ah yes. Doctor’s appointments. Because this isn’t, it turns out, as light as it first seems. It’s a clever realisation of how people conceal their mental health problems. No one in the office can possibly have a clue about how anxious Kate is, all the time, of what her upbeat humour hides. As the play progresses, we see Kate unravel, all the while maintaining that same bubbly persona.

A smear test is the catalyst. An abnormality sends Kate spiralling, her tinnitus is out of control and she doesn’t know what to do. And why is it so bloody hard to recycle a baked beans tin around here?

Bogg-Hargroves truly inhabits the part, which makes sense, as it’s based on her own experience. She’s a charming, engaging performer, easily eliciting laughs from this afternoon’s audience. I cry too, because there is real heart here, and plenty of stuff that resonates. If at times it’s a little too close to home, a little difficult to bear, well, that’s the point, I think. That’s art, doing what art is meant to do.

There’s some lovely direction here (from Bogg-Hargroves and Zoey Barnes). The transformation of Kate’s desk into an examination table is simple and wonderfully offbeat, drawing a laugh all by itself. I like the little bit of puppetry too, and the pre-recorded offstage voices (sound tech by George Roberts) are a quirky and effective touch. (I do wonder, however, why the final voice is different from all the others; apart from this one, they’re all Bogg-Hargroves, who has an impressive range of accents and tones. Is this meant to signify something? If so, I don’t get it.)

Incidentally, the Pleasance Rear Courtyard is my favourite performance space so far this Fringe – the best example of a joyous outside/inside Covid-safe venue I’ve seen. And Skank is a delight too. Make time to see this. It’s a gem.

4.8 stars

Susan Singfield