Theatre

The Stornoway Way

12/10/19

Studio Theatre, Edinburgh

Adapted by Kevin MacNeil from his 2005 novel, The Stornoway Way is the story of Roman (Naomi Stirrat), a would-be singer-songwriter living on the remote Isle of Lewis. Roman dreams of making the big time, but can’t seem to prise himself away from the whisky bottle long enough to put any constructive plans into action.

When his best friend Eilidh (Rachel Kennedy) offers to fund a trip to Edinburgh so Roman can spend time in a recording studio, he happily goes along with the scheme – but then he meets Hungarian student, Eva (Chloe-Ann Taylor), in an Edinburgh bar, and things become more complicated. And the whisky bottle is still exerting its tenacious pull.

The three actors put in spirited performances here but are hampered by a script that never manages to rise above the inescapable fact that the central character is a self-pitying wreck of a man. It’s usual in such stories to expect a little redemption along the way, but it’s in short supply here.

Still. it’s not all bad news.

There are pleasing elements: the folky songs featuring Gaelic lyrics (with an onscreen English translation) give proceedings an occasional lift, and the sly quips exchanged by the Lewis islanders in the first half elicit knowing laughter from the audience. Matthew Zajac’s direction is nicely done and there’s a handsome set courtesy of Ali Maclaurin. But it’s puzzling that, despite its title, most of the story unfolds not on the Isle of Lewis, but in Edinburgh. And in the second half, Roman’s relentless journey towards self-destruction begins to pall.

I’ve no doubt that the novel, written from the lead character’s cynical point of view, works a good deal more successfully than this rather scattershot adaptation. And, no matter how spirited a performance Stirrat gives us, she cannot convince me that anybody would offer this toxic male the time of day.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Love Song to Lavender Menace

12/10/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Love Song to Lavender Menace is a charming piece of metatheatre: an homage to a book shop disguised as… an homage to a book shop. Not just any old book shop, mind. This is Lavender Menace, the iconic gay/lesbian/feminist book shop that served Edinburgh’s queer community for five years in the ’80s.

Lewis (Pierce Reid) and Glen (Matthew McVarish) are packing up; the shop as they know it is going; it’s being renamed and relocated – and Lewis too is moving on. He’s sad and anxious, so focuses his attention on rehearsing the performance he and Glen have prepared as a parting gift for owners Bob and Sigrid, telling the story of the store and what it’s meant to so many marginalised people. The quirky direction by Ros Philips sees Lewis playing Sigrid ‘as a statue’ – arms aloft – and Glen being inventive with a roll of parcel tape.

The set is delightful: all chalkboard bookshelves backlit with blank white spines. It’s both playful and uncluttered, suggestive of a place where people can write their own lives.

It’s a funny, poignant play, and it’s no surprise to see a packed auditorium as it returns to the Lyceum, this time on the main stage. Playwright James Ley’s affection for Lavender Menace and what it represents shines through in every scene, evoking a sense of nostalgia even for those of us who were never there. For those who were, this must be a powerful draw indeed.

Cleverly, despite the claustrophobic lens through which we view this intimate memoir, we are offered a wider perspective, as Sigrid Nielson’s voice emanates from a cassette deck, ethereal and portentous. It gets better, then it gets worse, she says. Then better, then worse, then better again. We’re reminded of how bad things can be: of Clause 28 and gay-bashing, of the incendiary homophobic rhetoric that prevailed in the ’80s.

Nevertheless, the disturbing backdrop notwithstanding, this is not a tragic tale. It is a buoyant, vibrant celebration of a sanctuary, of a radical space in a conservative city.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Things I Know to be True

09/10/19

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

This thoughtful and bitter-sweet play by Andrew Bovell is all about family: the everyday sacrifices made by parents, and the difficulties experienced by their offspring when they try to escape those powerful familial ties.

Rosie Price (Maddy Chisholm-Scott) is midway through a backpacking tour of Europe, when something goes horribly wrong in Berlin. Devastated, she heads back to Australia, to 25, Windarie Avenue, the family home. Here, Bob (Matthew Storey) presides over his immaculately tended rose garden, where he’s spent all his time since taking early retirement. His wife, Fran (Amelia Watson), continues to put in long and punishing shifts at the local hospital, where she is a nurse.

Rosie’s early return from her travels brings her siblings to the house to ask a few difficult questions – though it soon becomes apparent that they all have their own problems to deal with.  There’s Pip (Erin Bushe), currently going through a messy separation from her husband and children. There’s Ben (Liam Bradbury), desperately trying to make his name in the cut-throat world of big business, and there’s Mark (Matthew Sedman), who is contemplating a life change that will have repercussions for the whole family.

This is an accomplished piece from these student actors, with Story and Watson managing – with the aid of some expertly applied makeup – to convince us that they’re actually a couple in their 60s. The direction by Marie Rimolsronning and Alice Foley is assured, and the elaborate set works well, creating a sense of the seasons passing as the various story strands unravel. If the play’s first half feels a little overlong and would benefit from some judicious pruning, the second half is leaner and more powerful.

There’s only one notable misstep, where Mark is obliged to deliver some lines from ‘up a tree.’ Somewhat let down by the scale of the props, he looks like a comical giant, so that the gravity of the scene is compromised. It would work so much better if he were to remain grounded!

There’s a tragic and genuinely heartbreaking conclusion: it’s this climactic moment, where Bob’s seemingly indominatable composure is finally and irrevocably shattered, that lingers in the memory.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

On Your Feet

 

07/10/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

On Your Feet is the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, following the well-trodden path of using bands’ back catalogues to create a musical. Unlike its precedessors however, Miami Sound Machine’s greatest hits are not playfully shoe-horned into a corny piece of fiction; instead they’re used to illustrate the band’s history.

It’s partially successful. There’s no denying the rousing nature of the music: the feel-good, toe-tapping, hip-swinging joy of it. This is an extravaganza of a show, with dazzling costumes (by Emilio Sosa), fizzing dance routines and a sense of well-earned pride in what the Estefans achieved. There’s a buzz in the auditorium; people are excited to be here, enjoying themselves.

Their history is interesting: as Cuban immigrants living in Miami, Gloria and Emilio struggled to break into the American music scene, despite their huge success in South America. But their fusion-tunes made a lot of sense, reflecting both their heritage and their assimilation. Their dedication to proving there was an appetite for ‘cross-over’ music is heartening to see realised.

The storytelling is somewhat artless though – surprisingly so from Alexander Dinelaris, the writer of Birdman – a chocolate-box depiction of the band’s rise to fame. The dialogue is clunkily expository in places, and perhaps there’s not quite enough plot. Gloria’s near-fatal traffic accident in the second act is supposed to provide the jeopardy, I suppose, but – as told here – it doesn’t have enough dramatic resonance, and the self-congratulatory tone of her recovery is truly cringe-inducing. Do we really need to have sycophantic fan letters read (and sung) aloud to us?

Still, there are some gutsy performances here tonight, not least from Philippa Stefani as Gloria. The ensemble work is beautifully choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, and the on-stage musicians are  seriously good.

We head out into the night singing and smiling – and that really can’t be bad. In the end the rhythm gets us.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Clybourne Park

04/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

According to Rapture Theatre’s artistic director Michael Emans, Bruce Norris’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner is all about “exposing the hypocrisy of middle-class, educated people, who will happily uphold the principles of fairness and equality – unless and until those principles impinge on their own interests.” If this is the intention behind Clybourne Park, then it is wholly successful. This play is tragic, profound, and uproariously funny – but it’s also an uncomfortable watch, skewering the liberal self-image of the typical theatre-goer.

The action takes place in the living room of a large house in a Chicago suburb, with two acts separated by fifty years. In 1959, affluent white couple Bev (Jackie Morrison) and Russ (Robin Kingsland) are selling up. They need to escape the home where their son killed himself; they can’t bear to stay. But their neighbour, Karl (Jack Lord), is dismayed to learn that, because of the cheap asking price, the purchasers are a black family; he doesn’t want ‘colored’ people moving in and lowering the tone – or the house prices.

This first act is easy for a white liberal audience member like me: as expected, I’m appalled by Karl’s racism, embarrassed by his appeal to black servant, Francine (Adelaide Obeng), and her husband, Albert (Vinta Morgan), to back him up. I’m drawn to Bev and Russ, stricken by loss, dragged unwillingly into Karl’s drama.

The second act is both more playful and more challenging. It’s 2009, and the neighbourhood is now mostly black. Young white couple, Lindsey (Frances McNamee) and Steve (Jack Lord) have bought the house; they want to bulldoze it and rebuild from scratch. Community group members, Lena (Adelaide Obeng) and Kevin (Vinta Morgan), have objected to the plans. The neighbourhood has historical significance, Lena maintains. People like Lindsey and Steve can’t just trample over that.

Steve is quick to feel the slight; he’s certain he knows what Lena really means. She doesn’t want them there because they’re white.

And, before we know it, a huge row has erupted, and no one is safe from the fallout. It’s excruciating and toe-curling, as one line after another is crossed.

In essence, Clybourne Park is a comedy of manners, a satirical examination of societal standards and behaviour in the US. Has anything really changed since the 1950s? It would seem not, and the doubling of roles highlights this. Steve clearly thinks all anti-racist talk is fake, a façade belying people’s real beliefs. Lindsey’s painfully right-on posturing is exposed as a fragile edifice, while lawyer Kathy (Jackie Morrison)’s paper-thin skin prevents her from ever seeing beyond her own nose. Lena, on the other hand,  clearly delights in stirring things up; her politeness is only a veneer; she wants to rattle Steve and Lindsey out of their self-satisfaction.

The performances are excellent, Lord in particular wringing every ounce of comic potential from his angry-white-man routine. The script is expertly realised in this production, every line given the space to breathe, each joke and jibe the chance to land.

It’s classy, thought-provoking stuff.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

A Woman of No Importance

01/10/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

We all know what to expect from a play by Oscar Wilde, right? Lots of self-satisfied characters uttering verbal witticisms and arch remarks, as they view society from their well-uphostered perches. A Woman of No Importance, first performed in 1892, ticks all the boxes. Indeed, it’s so packed with memorable lines that I occasionally feel like I’m trapped in a book of theatrical quotes.

Lady Hunstanton (Liza Goddard) is hosting a soiree at her country house, and the great and the good are gathered for the occasion. The guests include American visitor, Miss Hester Worsely (Georgia Landers), and the odious Lord Illingworth (Mark Meadows), who prides himself on his rakish qualities. But when the mysterious Mrs Abuthnot (Katy Stephens) puts in a late appearance, it’s clear that she and Illingworth have previous history.  It turns out that they share a former connection that will have serious repercussions for Mrs Arbuthnot’s son, Gerald (Tim Gibson). He has just been offered the role of Lord Illingworth’s private secretary. Awkward.

This is a lavishly mounted production, but not everything works as well as it might. The decision to have elaborate scene changes covered by comic ditties by veteran performer Roy Hudd, in the role of Reverend Daubeny, seems to have been drafted in from an entirely different kind of production. It doesn’t help that I struggle to hear the lyrics of old favourites like Pretty Little Polly Perkins from Paddington Green – but, more importantly, these interludes seem to have nothing in common with the rest of the show. (I can almost imagine Oscar wincing in the wings as the songs unfold).

Despite this misstep, there are some strong performances here: Goddard is a delight as the endearingly forgetful Lady Hunstanton and Meadows entirely convincing as a thoroughly bad egg in dire need of a slapped face. Isla Blair is delightfully deadpan as the acid-tongued Lady Caroline Pontefract and Emma Amos excels as the rebellious Mrs Allenby.

The play itself is a bit of a mixed bag. Its heart is clearly in the right place and its defence of the inequalities of womanhood must have seemed positively groundbreaking when it was first performed – but there’s a prospensity too for over-sentimentality. Wilde’s evident belief that America was an innocent new world, where old indiscretions could be shrugged off and where promising new horizons beckoned, now feels ridiculously optimistic – but, of course, Oscar had his own reasons for hating his homeland’s interpretation of ‘morality’.

Fans of Mr Wilde – and there are many of them – should have a field day with this.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

A Taste of Honey

24/09/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I first encountered Shelagh Delaney through The Smiths, way back when, before Morrissey disgraced himself. His gorgeous early songs are littered with her words, and her face features on both album and single covers. As a young Moz-fan with literary pretensions, of course I read A Taste of Honey; of course I bought a video of the film. Since then, I’ve seen a few theatre productions too, but – honestly – tonight’s interpretation is my favourite of the lot.

Bijan Sheibani’s Honey might not be as gritty as some versions, but it illuminates the dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship at the heart of the play more effectively than I have seen before. The characters are more ordinary, more credible, than they sometimes appear, the quirky expositional dialogue rendered somehow hyper-real.

Jodie Prenger excels as Helen, the non-maternal mother-figure who dominates the play. She’s resentful of her teenage daughter, Jo (Gemma Dobson), seeing her as an encumbrance, a dead weight dragging her down. Unsurprisingly, Jo is resentful too; she demands attention, yearns for Helen’s love. But Helen’s too busy thinking about herself and her sex life to care what her daughter’s up to, and Jo has learned not to expect much from life. Even as she’s losing her virginity, in thrall to erudite sailor Jimmie (Durone Stokes) – whose race doesn’t seem as relevant as it did in 1958 – she’s gloomily predicting that he’ll walk out of her life.

And she’s right.

Jo seems doomed to follow in Helen’s fucked-up footsteps: by the second act, all too predictably, she too is a pregnant teenager, alone and dreading motherhood. Her best friend, Geoffrey (Stuart Thompson), really wants to help; he’s even prepared to try to make a heterosexual relationship work. But Jo knows that can’t fly – and Helen’s not about to let Jo find happiness anyway.

In this National Theatre production, relationships are centre-stage. Poverty is less of an issue than it usually seems in this play: Helen’s marriage to the rich-but-odious Peter (Tim Carey), for example, seems borne more from greed than financial necessity.

The ever-present three-piece band is an interesting touch, lending the piece a kind of louche, lounge-bar-style seediness. The songs are beautifully sung, underscoring the emotional effects of the characters’ actions. I like the direction (although perhaps the scenery doesn’t need to be moved quite so much): the business and bustle, the use of understudies as strange double/twin stage hands.

This really is a ‘revival’ in the truest sense of the word – breathing new life into an ageing classic, making it relevant to today’s audience.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield