Theatre

Mouthpiece

 

06/12/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

When an author creates a character for a play, to whom does that character belong? The writer, yes? But what if the character is based on a living person – somebody who exists outside of the fiction? Does the author then have a responsibility to that person? And, if they change certain details of the character’s life, does that constitute a betrayal of trust?

It’s questions like this that permeate Kieran Hurley’s powerful and compelling play, Mouthpiece. As a creator of fiction myself, I find it particularly intriguing, though – judging by the intense silence in the Traverse Theatre on the evening I attend – I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Libby (Neve McIntosh) is a struggling playwright, recently returned to her home city of Edinburgh. Once fêted as the ‘next big thing,’ she has lost her way in London and is back living with her mother, unsure of what to do next. Her unhappiness leads her up to Salisbury Crags, where, fuelled by liquor, she rashly decides to fling herself from the heights and be done with it. But she’s been observed by disaffected teenager, Declan (Lorn Macdonald), who pulls her back from the edge. Declan too is unhappy, angry with his brutish stepfather’s treatment of his mother and of the infant daughter that Declan dotes on. He has come up to the Crags to work on one of his surreal drawings, undisturbed. The last thing he needs is this kind of interruption.

Fascinated by the boy, Libby seeks him out the following day, asking if he’ll meet up with her again, ‘just to talk.’ Already, her writer’s instincts have kicked in and she is beginning to plan a new project, one in which Declan will figure prominently.

Powered by searing performances from Macintosh and Macdonald, and simply staged within a skewed rectangular frame (which seems to perfectly showcase the ‘head-movie’ evolving in Libby’s mind), Mouthpiece occasionally breaks aside from the action for Libby to deliver short lectures on how successful plays are put together – and we start to notice how the writer changes those elements of Declan’s life that don’t quite fit with her plans. Even the parts lifted directly from reality must be reshaped, restructured, the jagged edges smoothed. This is how fiction is created and, it’s clear, these observations have been arrived at through personal experience.

Hurley’s ingenious circular narrative eventually brings Libby and Declan head-to-head in a brilliant fourth-wall breaking climax. As Declan sneeringly observes, it’s ‘all really meta.’

And, you know what? It is. And it’s wonderful to behold.

By this point I am absolutely riveted by what’s unfolding in front of me, barely daring to draw breath, in case I miss a word. Hurley has created something very special here, something that deserves to reach the widest possible audience.

It’s quite simply one of the best new plays I’ve seen in quite a while. Should you go and see it? Yes, I really think you should.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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McGonnagall’s Chronicles (which will be remembered for a very long time)

06/12/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The McGonagall of the title is, of course, William Topaz McGonnagall, the infamous ‘Bard of Dundee,’ widely celebrated as the worst poet of all time. A weaver by trade and a jobbing actor for a short while, McGonnagall embarked on his writing career in 1877, inspired by a ‘heavenly visitation’ and, by the time of his death in 1902, had left a legacy of over 250 (admittedly dreadful) self-published poems. In his declining years, he was treated with scant respect by the citizens of Dundee, where he was reduced to appearing in a circus tent, reading his poems aloud while members of the public pelted him with ripe fruit and rotten eggs.

As the name suggests, this show, written and performed by Gary McNair, with musical accompaniment from James O’ Sullivan and Simon Liddell, offers us a chronological history of the great man’s life from birth to demise. Fittingly enough, the play is delivered entirely in verse and McNair gleefully takes every opportunity to make his recitation appear as clunky and wince-inducing as the work of the great man himself.

It’s in the final third where the major surprises come. I’ve been fully expecting to laugh at McGonnagall’s exploits, but am quite unprepared for the overpowering tragedy of his hard-knock life. What comes across most strongly is the man’s indomitable self-belief: his determination to struggle on in the face of overwhelming ridicule. It probably boils down to yet another poorly-educated working-class man desperately trying to better himself, while the toffs around him look on and snigger.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

McNair has his own cross to bear during this afternoon’s performance, when a gentleman in the front row leaps suddenly to his feet and scuttles out of the nearest exit. McNair, interrupted mid-verse, has his concentration well and truly shattered, but deals with the interruption playfully (and in rhyme!) before regaining his momentum.

This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking romp through one of history’s most peculiar stories, and it’s a show well worth seeking out. As for McGonnagall himself, well, he has the last laugh. Hundreds of years after his death, his poems are still widely available in print, which is more than can be said for many of his contemporaries. As McNair and his musicians take their well-earned bows, I’m half convinced I can hear the sound of triumphant cackling from somewhere high above the audience… but, hey, maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about that sub-title, look up the Bard’s masterwork, The Tay Bridge Disaster and all will be explained.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Beauty and the Beast

 

05/12/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ve long been fascinated by pantomime. Accounting for 45% of all theatre tickets sold in the UK, its popularity is clear. But why? It’s an odd beast – cobbled together from Commedia dell Arte, music hall, drag, variety and pop – but it holds a very special place in the British public’s hearts.

I’ll nail my colours to the mast and state: I love it. I love the juxtapositions, the silliness, the stock phrases and characters, the magnification of everything blaring at us from the stage. I love ramshackle amateur and kids’ productions, and provincial professionals with ex-soap stars in the lead.

I love the nostalgia it evokes even as it embraces the zeitgeist.

But most of all I love this: the King’s Theatre’s panto-plus, where the ante is well and truly upped. Here, in the hands of director Ed Curtis and actors Allan Stewart and Grant Stott (Andy Gray, the third member of the triumvirate, is absent due to illness this year, but plans to return in 2019; get well soon, Andy!), we are treated to an absolute master class in the form: there’s an art to making the precise look shambolic, the crafted seem accidental. And it’s so funny – even the oldest, daftest jokes have me roaring with laughter; it’s all in the delivery.

Much of the wow factor here is in the tech: the designers achieve wonders. This contrast between the traditional painted cartoon-village flats and the state-of-the-art pyrotechnics is at the heart of what makes panto work, I think: the comfort of the familiar jarring with the pizzaz of the new. Ingenious lighting (by Matt Clutterham) hides the mechanics and makes the whole thing magical. Did I mention I love this? I do. It’s awesome. Really, it is.

The supporting cast all do a sterling job, but there’s no doubt this show is a vehicle for Stewart’s Dame (Auntie May) and Stott’s villain (Flash Boaby). Special mention also to Jacqueline Hughes as the Enchantress, whose singing voice is truly a lovely thing.

There’s panto – and then there’s panto at the King’s. Don’t miss it. It’s a real treat.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Wendy & Peter Pan

30/11/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The story of Peter Pan is a perennial Christmas favourite for family audiences. This clever reworking by Ella Hickson, created for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013, is adapted not from JM Barrie’s original play, but from from the extended version he published as a novel in 1911.

As you might deduce from the rearranged title, this is an altogether more feminist version of the story. Instead of being a helpless victim throughout the action, Wendy (Isobel McArthur) is clearly one for taking the initiative and, as it turns out, she’s also a dab hand with a cutlass. She first meets Peter (Ziggy Heath) shortly after the death of her brother, Tom (Keiran Gallagher); a year later, her parents, still unable to regain their equilibrium, appear to be drifting apart. Then Tom reappears and takes Wendy and her two other brothers, John (George Naylor) and Michael (Christian Ortega), off to join the Lost Boys in Neverland…

This rumbustious, sprawling adventure seems to delight in subverting audience expectations. Hook (Gyruri Sarossy) is not the usual sneering fop, but an oafish yob who’s beginning to feel the inexorable advance of old age. His bosun, Smee (Dorian Simpson), is a pernickety, snarky sort of fellow, who also throws a few good dance moves when he’s in the mood. Tink (Sally Reid) is a punky Glaswegian in dark glasses and sparkly leggings who is well versed in caustic remarks. There are sword fights aplenty (one of which I fear goes on a tad too long), a spectacular pirate ship set and, of course, there’s quite a bit of flying, though sometimes this feels a little too careful to be truly magical. I expect that will develop as the performers become more confident with the ropes and harnesses.

Needless to say, the younger members of the audience (at whom this is mostly aimed) have a great time with this, although one little chap in front of us does seem a bit overwhelmed by an unexpected visit from a very large and hungry crocodile; and there’s enough depth here for the big kids in the audience not to feel left out. The most interesting idea is an allegory about bereavement and the need for people to move on with their lives. Perhaps, Hickson seems to be saying, Neverland is something more than just a place for aimless kids to hang out.

At any rate, those with restless youngsters seeking entertainment could do a lot worse than head down to the Lyceum for their yuletide fix. This is sprightly stuff that should keep the whole family thoroughly entertained.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Nativity! the Musical

28/11/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s that time of year when families go looking for a heartwarming slice of entertainment, something that will be suitable for kids, parents and grandparents alike. There’s always panto, of course, but not everyone enjoys that kind of thing… (Oh yes they do! Oh no they don’t! Sorry.)

That’s when Nativity! the Musical may be just what Santa ordered. After all, what could be more Christmassy than a school nativity play? This of course, started life in 2009 as a successful film starring Martin Freeman. There have been further spin-offs, with the latest landing any day now. The first movie was adapted into a stage musical in 2017 by original author, Debbie Isitt.

This is the story of Mr Maddens (Scott Garnham), former wannabe actor turned primary school teacher, and his rivalry with his one-time best friend, Mr Shakespeare (Andy Brady), who teaches drama at a much more upmarket private school. After the love of his life, Jennifer (Ashleigh Grey), runs off to Hollywood to pursue her dream of being a film producer, his first attempt at a school Nativity receives a drubbing at the hands of a local theatre critic (played here by Jo Brand), and Mr Maddens swears never to direct again – but then along comes supply teacher, arrested adolescent Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin), who is simply itching to bring his talents to this year’s production – and when Mr Maddens is overheard boasting that he can arrange to bring a ‘film producer friend from Hollywood’ to watch the show, things get a little out of hand…

Despite some worrying implications in the script – I’m sure primary school teachers in the audience aren’t delighted to hear that their chosen vocation is only suitable for those who have failed at loftier ambitions – this is nonetheless guaranteed to win over all but the sternest of critics, mostly by virtue of its irrepressible sense of fun. Lipkin is quite fabulous as Mr Poppy, his seemingly improvised asides earning big laughs from viewers of all ages – but best of all are his interactions with the younger members of the cast, aged from 9 to 12 years, who work their socks off up on the stage and somehow manage to steer a path clear of any saccharine. Twelve of them are local kids, specially recruited for this production and it’s a genuine delight to watch them strutting their stuff so effectively.

I’m usually a bit of a Scrooge about this kind of show, but I have to admit that Nativity! the Musical quickly wins me over. The slick scene changes, the clapalong songs and the general air of exuberance from everyone concerned soon manage to get me onside, which, given my usual levels of Yule-related grumpiness, is no mean feat. There are even a couple of moments where I feel my eyes brimming with something suspiciously like tears. By the end, I am on my feet and applauding as enthusiastically as everyone else.

Those looking for a festive fun night out should look no further than this. It’s a Christmas cracker.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

There is a Globe Stuck in my Throat

15/11/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

There is a Globe Stuck in My Throat is an unusual piece of work, devised by Germany’s Junges Ensemble Marabu, and presented by the Traverse as part of the Chrysalis festival. The festival is in its fourth year, and has an exciting remit: to offer a platform to young theatre makers, allowing them to experiment with form and content in a professional environment.

On the form side, There is a Globe… certainly shakes things up successfully: we ricochet from conference to competition, from space-hopper silliness to images of tragedy. The Junges Ensemble Marabu are an engaging crew, their costumes all colour and sparkle, their space-age make-up both startling and oddly distancing. The direction is deft and confident, and there are some strong images created: the drone ‘copters flying in coloured clouds of oxytocin; the lines of children-in-need photographs that stretch across the stage. This is something of a scattergun approach, but it’s bold and fresh; I like the look and feel of it.

The content, however, is less persuasive: there is a rambling and sometimes incoherent quality that offers little new insight. Of course, this seems to be the point: that we in the privileged western world sit around talking, prioritising our own feelings, doling out charity and shrugging our shoulders, unable to distinguish between real tragedy and the dog shit in the street. Meanwhile, elsewhere, millions are starving; thousands are displaced and seeking refuge. We switch off the TV and look away; we fiddle while Rome burns. But this is clear from the first twenty minutes; after that, it’s all just more of the same, dressed up in different clothes.

I’d have liked the ideas to have been pushed further: to dig deeper, say more.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Education, Education, Education

 

14/11/18

Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh

This quirky little play, originally devised by The Wardrobe Ensemble, is the perfect vehicle for the EUTC, offering a real opportunity for these talented students to show their acting chops.

It’s 1997, and it’s Tobias (Max Prentice)’s first day at Wordsworth Comprehensive, where he’ll be working as a German language assistant. But this is no normal day: Tony Blair was elected as Prime Minister last night, and there’s a strange emotion pervading the staffroom. Could it be… hope? Might the ‘education, education, education’ mantra that’s propelled Blair to the top job actually translate into something real, like new textbooks, or permanent classrooms, or reduced class sizes?

Whatever. It’s still a school day. The bell still rings; there are still lunch duties and lesson covers – and the small matter of ‘muck-up day,’ as the Year 11s seize their opportunity to cause consequence-free chaos: they’re leaving this afternoon. And, amidst all this, there’s Lauren: troubled, angry, vulnerable Lauren (Lauren Robinson), who wants to go on a history trip to York, but who’s been told her past behaviour precludes her from such treats.

This is a lively, energetic production, with all actors (except Prentice) dual-rolling as staff members and pupils. Tobias’s outsider’s eye exposes the vagaries of our education system; he’s a positive, engaging character, a Brit-o-phile, more gently observant than sharply critical. The performances are all strong, but standouts include Fergus Head as ineffective head teacher, Hugh Mills, and Lauren Robinson as the self-destructive teen mentioned above. Robinson in particular excels at portraying a heartbreaking mix of fragility and bravado, the all-too-recognisable frustration of those who have too little autonomy.

The Brit-pop music provides a dynamic aural backdrop, and the high-octane dance moves and scene transitions all help this small cast to convince us we’re in a busy, bustling school. There are some sombre moments: Tobias’s flash-forward narrative reminds us that, although Blair did indeed inject a lot of much-needed money into the system, and things did improve considerably, this too has now passed: schools are academised and closing, begging parents for provisions, dropping ‘frivolous’ subjects from their timetables.

Don’t get me started. This one’s personal for me. I was a teacher for twenty-two years; I left because of what the job became. I’ve been a foreign language teaching assistant too (in Germany), so this play really speaks to me.

But even if your own experiences are vastly different from these, this is a piece well worth seeing. What happens in education affects us all.

And this is fun. So, you know – win, win.

4 stars

Susan Singfield