Theatre

The Last Ship

12/06/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The Last Ship has a new book by director Lorne Campbell to complement Sting’s music and lyrics – and it’s a remarkable piece of work. The earlier version, which opened in Chicago in 2014, enjoyed only moderate success; this latest incarnation perhaps explains why: there’s something so decidedly British about it, it’s no surprise it didn’t quite translate.

Based on Sting’s own experience of growing up in the shadow of a Tyneside shipyard, it tells the story of the workers, who are sold out by management and MPs, victims of the Ridley plan to cut government spending and weaken their trade unions. It’s the 1980s; the miners’ strike has already shaken the country to its core. The ship-builders know they are likely to lose their fight, but they’re resolute: they’ll do what it takes to keep their yard open, to complete the ship they’ve been working on, to prevent it being sold for scrap. Because, as their foreman Jackie (Joe McGann) remind us, it’s all they’ve got, their entire community built around these jobs.

Meanwhile, Gideon (Richard Fleeshman) is back in town, after seventeen long years at sea. He didn’t want to work in the shipyards, so he sailed away instead, even though it meant leaving his girlfriend behind; it was the price he had to pay. He’s surprised to discover Meg (Frances McNamee) is still there, running the local pub these days, as well as a few other businesses – and there’s a greater surprise in store for him, namely the rebellious wannabe musician, Ellen (Katie Moore), the teenage daughter he never knew he had. Awkward.

If the story is a little hackneyed, it doesn’t really matter: it’s a strong enough hook for the action, and the music works its magic, the choral numbers especially rousing and anthemic, with lots of Celtic riffs and foot-stamping to spare. The characters are engaging and their plight adroitly told. I especially like the chorus of working men, who are clearly delineated, a real set of diverse people rather than a faceless mass: there are poets here as well as pissheads, softies as well as swaggerers.

But it’s the design by 59 Productions that really elevates this musical: an industrial shell of a set enhanced by truly awesome projections, their grandeur and precision a thing of real wonder, transporting us in an instant from picket-line to fireside, from stormy seas to cosy pub. There is real mastery in this art.

The closing speech is a stirring one, all the more so because it’s delivered by Ellen, the youngest character in the play. It speaks of hope and direct action, of the people taking back control, refusing to be cowed by fat cats and corporations. All power to ’em, I say. And all power to this show.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

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Love From a Stranger

05/06/08

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Agatha Christie is often paid a huge disservice in stage adaptations of her work. More often than not, directors decide to spoof the content, playing up the high camp aspects of her stories for laughs and, in the process, sacrificing the suspense. Luckily this production by Fiery Angel and Royal & Derngate, directed by Lucy Bailey, opts to play things reassuringly straight, transposing the original setting to the late 1950s and basing its look around Michael Powell’s infamous murder mystery film, Peeping Tom. This results in a sprightly, sure-footed version of the story that plays to Christie’s narrative strengths.

Incidentally, originally adapted by Frank Vosper in the 1930s from a Christie short story, Philomel Cottage, the play was a hit both in the UK and in New York, but had it’s own Christie-like twist, when Vosper managed to fall off a cruise ship on his way back from the states and drown. An open verdict was returned.

Cecily Harrington (Helen Bradbury) is arranging the sale of her Wimbledon flat while she awaits the arrival of nice-but-dull fiancé, Michael (Justin Avoth), from the Sudan, where he’s been working for the past few years. The general idea is for the couple to marry on his return, but a recent sizeable win on a sweepstake has kindled in her a desire for a little adventure. So when handsome American Bruce Lovell (Sam French) turns up to view the flat, she’s quickly swept off her feet by his tales of reckless adventure around the world and his alluring invitation to join her for lunch.

Almost before she knows what’s happening, she’s married Bruce and the two of them have moved to Philomel Cottage, deep in the heart of the country, where he sets about dissuading Cecily from seeing any of her friends from London. He spends a lot of his time in the cellar, which he’s converted into a dark room, in which he pursues his passion for photography. But there are mysteries that seem to lack any rational explanation. Why, for instance, does the gardener, Hodgson (Gareth Williams), keep finding empty bottles of hydrogen peroxide buried in the herbaceous border? Why does he seem to think that the asking price for the cottage was hundreds of pounds lower than the sum Cecily actually ended up paying of it? And why has Bruce torn a page from one of those true life crime magazines he’s so fond of studying?

Bradbury and French deliver convincing performances in the lead roles and the ingenious sliding set design, that puts me in mind of a set of Chinese puzzle boxes, keeps giving the audience a slightly different view of the stage, revealing areas we have previously had to imagine. If the play’s great revelation doesn’t turn out to be that much of a surprise, nevertheless, this is an assured production that holds my interest from start to finish – and its worth seeing this just for Nicola Sanderson’s priceless turn as the snobby ‘Auntie Lulu’.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other

01/06/18

The Lyceum, Edinburgh

The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other by Peter Handke is a highly unusual production. Created and performed by a ‘Community Chorus of Edinburgh Residents,’ it features a cast of eighty-six non-professional actors and, watching it, I am filled with admiration for the way in which this complex piece has been so meticulously choreographed, the many costume changes serving to make me believe I am actually watching more than a hundred performers.

The play begins with the curtain rising to show a narrow band, wherein we become aware of feet passing restlessly to and fro – then the curtain opens upwards to show streams of people passing back and forth across a steeply raked stage, sometimes just a few at once, other times a veritable torrent of them, all racing to fulfil their imaginary deadlines. These are characters from – if you’ll forgive the pun – all walks of life. Office workers, business people, street cleaners and ramblers… waiters and prisoners, decorators and soldiers – indeed, the multiplicity of urban existence is written large and restlessly plays out as music and sound effects provide a stirring accompaniment.

Occasionally, something surreal moves across the stage – people struggle to push a gigantic stone sculpture on a wooden trolley, a mystic leads a magical floating contraption from one side to the other. There are elements of slapstick humour too: a hapless street cleaner attempts to brush a barrage of newspapers blowing in the wind; a paint-spattered decorator performs a strange wistful ballet with a ladder – and in one scene, an unmistakably Chaplinesque figure swings a familiar walking stick. There are more forbidding moments too. A highlight for me is the extended sequence, where groups of older actors shuffle inexorably into the wings – and the that ultimately waits for everyone…

There are virtually no words spoken in the entire production and much of what we’re shown here is open to personal interpretation. Why is one character trying to impersonate everyone he encounters? Is he intended to personify an actor at work? Why do characters from Greek mythology occasionally put in an appearance? I’m not really sure, but hey, I’m glad they’re there!  At the play’s conclusion, the huge cast troop out and take their much-deserved bows – and we’re allowed a glimpse of the racks and racks of costumes ranged along the back of the stage, which they have utilised to create their various personae.

I emerge from the Lyceum feeling that I have just viewed something complex , exciting and pretty unique. Directors Wils Wilson and Janice Parker deserve huge plaudits for this. It’s a truly monumental undertaking and, as I can’t help remarking afterwards, something the like of which I’ve never seen in the theatre before. Which surely must be one of the strongest reasons for seeing it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Sherlock Holmes: The Final Curtain

28/05/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s November 1922 and Doctor Watson (Timothy Lightly) arrives at one of those new-fangled radio stations to talk about some of the cases he’s worked on with his old friend, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Powell). Unusually, he chooses to recount a case from the very end of their career and, via a surprisingly effective flashback device involving a slowly moving curtain, we are whisked to Devon, a few years earlier.

We find Holmes living in retirement where he is suffering from arthritis and devoting most of his spare time to two old hobbies, fly-fishing and bee-keeping. But when the dead body of a young woman is found on his private stretch of beach, Holmes simply cannot help putting in his six-penneth, even though he quickly discovers that he is already disconcertingly out of touch with the changing times. Then, he is paid an unexpected visit by Watson’s wife, Mary (Liza Goddard), who tells him that she has glimpsed the ghost of her dead son, James, back at 221B Baker Street. At first, Holmes is reluctant to return to his old haunt, but soon enough he’s there, where he learns that it’s not just the times that are changing. Watson is now dabbling in psychoanalysis and his relationship with Mary is strained to say the very least…

There’s lots to enjoy here – Powell and Goddard, seasoned stalwarts that they are, put in exemplary performances in the lead roles, the staging is rather splendidly done and it’s certainly an interesting idea to pit Holmes against unfamiliar technology, such as recording equipment, electric lighting and cinematography. If there’s a real problem, it lies with the script, which – though it does its best to incorporate classic lines from and references to the works of Conan Doyle – lacks the ingenuity and complexity of one of his labyrinthine plots. It’s dismaying, for instance, that our idle conjecture during the interval about a possible solution to the mystery turns out to be correct in every detail bar one – and that, only because the idea is so risible. It’s not that we’re great amateur sleuths, more that there simply aren’t many possibilities to choose from.

Holmes completists will certainly want to tick this one off their ‘to watch’ lists and it provides a decent evening’s entertainment – but playwrights do take on an immense weight of expectation when attempting to walk in the illustrious footsteps of Mr Conan Doyle and I’m not entirely convinced that The Final Curtain quite masters the challenge. But it’s fun watching somebody try.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Voices From the Moon

26/05/18

I shall begin this review with a question: who was the third astronaut who accompanied Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on their famous moon mission?  If you answer, ‘Mike Collins,’ well done. If you say that you haven’t the foggiest idea, well, you’re not alone. His name has pretty much disappeared from people’s memory, including mine.

We’re at the Hidden Door Festival and we’re here, specifically, to see Public Burning Theatre’s production of James Harker’s play, Voices From the Moon. We first became aware of Harker’s work through Manchester’s 24/7 Festival in 2015, where we really rated his poignant play Gary: A Love Story. And when we moved to Edinburgh, we told him that if he was ever up our way, he should get in touch…

Hence our visit to the gloriously ramshackle Hidden Door, where several very different offerings are taking place in a couple of semi-derelict buildings in Leith. The festival has managed to pull in a sizeable and enthusiastic crowd, but it quickly becomes apparent that organisation isn’t their strongest point. After a few mix-ups, we finally arrive at the right venue in time to watch the play.

It’s a monologue, the story of Steph (Steph Reynolds), confined to her bedroom by agoraphobia, where she has compiled a sizeable collection of books, tapes and videos concerning her main obsession – the NASA moon landing of July 1969. Meanwhile, she tries to apply herself to the idea of taking her own personal giant leap for mankind – convincing herself that she has the right stuff to actually set foot outside her Mother’s house. The parallels are clear – and Reynolds is a confident and appealing performer, who makes the best of playing a venue where the sound from another production taking place right next door is sometimes disconcertingly intrusive. I like the idea that Steph’s ‘Mother’ is in the audience tonight, her part played by an unsuspecting member of the public, but I am less keen on the staging of the play, which obliges Steph to constantly move three step ladders around in order to illustrate individual scenes – a device that occasionally feels distracting.

But the play shines through. Not only do I learn more about the moon landing than I had previously known – the name of that third astronaut, for example – I also find myself being increasingly drawn into Steph’s world and caring more and more about her disabling predicament.

Voices From the Moon is compelling stuff, confirming James Harker as a writer to look out for.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Macbeth

10/05/18

Let’s face it, Macbeth’s biggest problem is its ubiquity. Easily the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays – and arguably one of the most powerful – we’ve seen so many average versions of it over the years (amongst which I am inclined to include Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film adaptation) that a production really needs to do something very special with the source material in order to make it an enticing proposition. I’m therefore delighted to say that the National Theatre’s latest production, directed by Rufus Norris and seen here via a live cinema linkup,  does exactly that, giving us a Macbeth that rivals the very best of them.

It almost goes without saying that both Rory Kinnear (in the title role) and Anne Marie Duff (as his manipulative wife) submit exceptional performances, giving those oh-so-familiar lines enough oomph to make you feel as though you’re actually hearing them for the first time. No mean feat.  But it’s the production design that really shines. This version takes place in what might well be a post-apocalyptic world, where a civil war has just been bloodily disputed and where everything has a grungy ‘make do and mend’ look. Severed heads are proudly displayed in supermarket carrier bags, food is served in battered mess tins and even Macbeth’s armour is contrived from found items battered into shape, which have to be literally gaffa-taped onto him before each battle. Duncan (Stephen Boxer)’s royal regalia comprises an ill-fitting red velvet suit, that might have been salvaged from a charity shop. It provides the one splash of vibrant colour in an otherwise drab and scuffed world.

Production designer Rae Smith has created a huge wood and metal arch upon which much of the action plays out. It somehow contrives to be both heavily industrial yet strangely ethereal as it swings silently back and forth. It is poised over a revolving circular stage, so that each successive scene can glide effortlessly into position. In one sequence, the Weird Sisters move with the turning of that central wheel like the protagonists of a particularly disturbing nightmare. There’s some great use of regional accents: Trevor Fox’s Porter is a dour Geordie; Patrick O’ Kane’s MacDuff a pugnacious Irishman. Oh, and the element that lets down so many stage productions – that climactic battle – is delivered here with enough zeal and gusto to be truly convincing. You’ll believe that a head can be bloodily severed.

Of course, if you’re reading this and you weren’t at last night’s showing, you’ve already missed your chance to see the live broadcast, but the good news is that the production is heading out on a UK and Ireland tour from late September, so – if it’s showing anywhere near you – do take the opportunity to see it. It will serve to remind you that Shakespeare, when convincingly done, can be truly and utterly enthralling.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Birdsong

08/05/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

All the familiar tropes we associate with the First World War are present and correct in this adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s 1993 novel: plucky working class ‘Tommys’; a handsome young upper-crust officer; a selection of patriotic songs – and, of course,  the overpowering futility of the ‘war to end all wars.’ Faulks’s 800 page doorstop tome must have been a challenge to adapt but Rachel Wagstaff has done an efficient job of distilling it down to its key points.

The stage version focuses primarily on two characters. Jack Firebrace (Tim Trelor) is a ‘sewer rat,’ one of the sappers whose job it is to tunnel for miles under enemy lines, planting explosives and then detonating charges. It’s thankless, back-breaking work and the claustrophobia of the Firebrace’s situation is cleverly conveyed. Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) is an artistically inclined young officer, haunted by memories of an affair he had in France – before the outbreak of war – with Isabelle (Madeleine Knight), a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship with a much older husband. The constant segues – from the trenches of 1916 to his time with the Azaire family in Amiens in 1910 – are at first a little disorienting but, once I have settled into the rhythm, I begin to appreciate how skilfully the transitions have been achieved. The final scene of act one as the allies prepare to go ‘over the top’ at the Battle of the Somme is particularly powerful and, for me, the dramatic high point of the play.

The second half takes us on to the aftermath of the Somme, where Wraysford, wounded in the battle and assigned a desk job returns to Amiens to search for his former lover. If it lacks some of the urgency of the first half, there’s still much here to enjoy, not least the plaintive vocal stylings of James Findlay, whose affecting voice lends the songs of the period extra resonance.

This is a powerful and mournful play that skilfully combines elements of brutality and romance. It may be an oft-told story, but – in this case – familiarity does not breed contempt. In fact, in these chaotic times, it feels sadly prescient.

4 stars

Philip Caveney