Theatre

What Girls Are Made Of

17/04/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

We missed What Girls Are Made Of at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, which is a shame because Cora Bissett’s autobiographical tale was a First Fringe winner there and enjoyed great word of mouth. This timely reshowing at the Traverse gives us an opportunity to catch up with it and boy, are we glad we do.

From the moment she wanders onto the stage carrying a cardboard box full of ‘memories,’ Bissett has us clutched in the palm of her hand – and she expertly delivers her picaresque story, relating her knockabout schooldays in Kirkcaldy, her early years in rock music and her exciting brush with fame when her newly formed band Darlingheart shared stages with the likes of Blur and Radiohead at the height of the Britpop phenomenon. Bissett is a superb raconteur and she knows exactly how to pull an audience into her world.

If you’re thinking that this is a piece that concentrates only on the good times, let me assure you that it also takes in the darker side of the music industry, demonstrating how a young musician’s hopes and dreams can be ground underfoot by unscrupulous record labels. There’s a reason you may not have heard much about Darlingheart, and Bisset reveals it all in excruciating detail. This part of her story speaks volumes to me: back in my teen years, I too was a hopeful in a rock band, and went through my own long dark night of the soul at the hands of the music moguls.

Lest I give the impression that this is just a solo performance, I should add that the three members of her band (Simon Donaldson, Harry Ward and Susan Bear) not only provide a kicking soundtrack for Bissett’s story, but also take on a multitude of roles, playing key characters on her journey with aplomb, Ward in particular evincing much laughter as her indomitable mother. Ward is an arresting performer, last seen by B&B in the superb Dark Carnival, also at The Traverse.

Bissett eventually emerged from the carnage of Darlingheart, learning how to survive, and finally carving out a career as a writer, performer and director. Her conclusion – that we are all a result of the various obstacles we overcome in our path through life – is cannily encompassed in a final, rousing song.

This is enervating stuff and the standing ovation the four performers receive as the last chords die away is well earned. If you can grab a ticket for What Girls Are Made Of, do so with all haste. It’s often said, but I’m saying it anyway: this is simply too good to miss.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

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Abigail’s Party

16/04/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Mike Leigh’s 1970s drama is one of those pieces everyone just seems to know. I was only six when it was first screened in 1977, far too young to have seen it then, and yet it feels like something I have grown up with, ever-present, with Alison Steadman’s Beverly the towering icon at its heart.

For those few the play has eluded, or whose memories need a jog, Abigail’s Party is a dark comedy, an agonising depiction of social embarrassment. When painfully polite divorcee, Sue (Rose Keegan), needs somewhere to spend the evening while her wayward daughter, Abigail, has the titular party, Beverly (Jodie Prenger) seizes the opportunity to play host, inviting gauche new neighbours, Angela (Vicky Binns) and Tony (Calum Callaghan), to make up the numbers. Beverly’s overworked estate agent husband, Laurence (Daniel Casey), is reluctant – he has business calls to make and has to be up early in the morning – but Beverly prevails. It’s clear that Beverly always prevails. And nothing will stand in the way of her desire to show off her cocktail cabinet and leather three-piece-suite.

It’s a sturdy piece of work, and one that stands the test of time, with far more to offer than the kitsch 70s-pastiche set and costumes might suggest. But these are just a kind of shorthand, a means of settling the audience comfortably into a recognisable time and place, before discomfiting us with the hubris and frailty of the characters on stage.

The acid nature of the couples’ relationships and their collective lack of self-awareness drive the humour here; we, like Sue, are baffled outsiders, blinking at the awfulness of the people before us. Rose Keegan is adroit at conveying a sense of mounting horror, her pleasant manners becoming an ever-less effective method of keeping Beverly at bay.

Prenger, as Beverly, is of course the key to the whole play, and she’s a formidable performer, who has the chops for the part. I can’t help wishing there was less of Steadman here though; director Sarah Esdaile asserts that “Alison is inextricably linked with Beverly’s voice” – she helped create the role – and I know that’s true, but I would prefer to see a different incarnation of Beverly, a new interpretation of this monstrous creature. After all, there are Beverlys everywhere.

Vicky Binns does a cracking turn as the gawky Angela, gamely weathering her taciturn husband’s scorn, and desperate to impress. The saddest moment in the play for me is when she decries her parents’ dreadful marriage, seemingly unaware that her own is a carbon copy; the funniest is her dance. At first, I find her style a bit declamatory but, as the drama progresses, it works: Angela is performing for Beverly.

Calum Callaghan might not have showy stuff to do as Tony, but his dark mood effectively puts a dampener on the evening, quelling every moment of  light-heartedness or potential joy. And Daniel Casey’s Laurence is a fascinating study, almost likeable, but for his desperate snobbishness, and his vengeful urge to humiliate his wife.

An excoriating social satire, Abigail’s Party might press the nostalgia buttons, but it’s still very relevant today.

4 stars 

Susan Singfield

 

Stones in his Pockets

02/04/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

A little rural town in County Kerry has been appropriated as the setting for a big Hollywood movie, and most of the locals have landed themselves roles as extras. They include Jake Quinn (Owen Sharpe) and Charlie Conlon (Kevin Trainor), two likely lads with plenty of time on their hands.

Charlie is, at first, perfectly content to take his forty pounds a day and all he can eat from the catering wagon, but Jake has somewhat loftier ambitions. He has written a screenplay of his own and intends to show it to everybody he meets in the vague hope of achieving some kind of success. When the film’s glamorous star, Caroline, unexpectedly flutters her eyelashes in Charlie’s direction, Jake inevitably hears the sound of opportunity knocking. But he has a lot to learn about the ways in which the film industry operates…

Stones in his Pockets by Marie Jones is a gentle and engaging comedy. First performed in Belfast in 1996, it went on to have a lengthy run in the West End and, later, on Broadway. This timely revival is beautifully performed by Sharpe and Trainor, who – as well as delivering the lead roles – also portray a whole host of incidental characters: there’s the film’s bombastic director; some of its stars (including the seductive Caroline); a muscle-bound security guard; various local inhabitants (one of whom is the only surviving extra from The Quiet Man); and even the doomed, drug addicted teenager, Sean Harkin, whose unexpected suicide gives the play its title and whose funeral arrangements threaten to throw the Hollywood production into disarray.

But this is really all about the performance. It’s a delight to watch the two actors snap so effortlessly into each successive role, using a whole array of poses and gestures to ensure we’re never in any doubt as to who is talking to who at any given moment. The resulting interplay provides plenty of laughs and, at key points, some moments of genuine poignancy.

This play examines how the film industry remodels reality to make it more palatable for the big screen, how it exploits bystanders, seducing and dazzling them them into providing whatever is necessary to achieve a satisfactory end product. And it also highlights the desires and dreams of ordinary people that are so rarely given the opportunity to bloom into some kind of reality.

Stones in his Pockets is a little gem that’s well worth your attention.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

(Can This Be) Home

28/03/19

Writer/performer/poet Kolbrùn Björt Sigfúsdóttir fully expected her extended examination of the Brexit conundrum to have reached some kind of a resolution by now – it is after all, the night before the UK is scheduled to leave the European union – but the slow separation lumbers inexorably on, with nobody any the wiser.

Icelandic by birth, Sigfúsdöttir has lived and worked in the UK for five years now and is understandably concerned about what’s going to happen to her ability to travel and work in Europe after Brexit has changed the rules. (Can This Be) Home is essentially a series of poems about what it means to be an immigrant, though it should be said, that she’s speaking from a fairly privileged point of view, something that she really only acknowledges in her final (and most successful) poem.

Her readings are counterpointed with short pieces by musician Tom Oakes, who plays a wooden flute and a stringed instrument that, to my untutored eye, looks like a lute crossed with a guitar. Tom features a nice line in anecdotal patter and his observation that it’s hard to write a protest song when you’re an instrumentalist gets the evening’s biggest laugh. His musical influences come from all over the world, but particularly from the Scandi-regions where he has often been based – so he too is waiting for the results of Brexit with some apprehension.

While Sigfúsdöttir recites her work, Oakes immerses himself in a book, and while Oakes tootles his flute, Sigfúsdöttir models house-shaped images from what appears to be a mixture of sand and putty. This pointed ignoring of each other’s efforts is obviously intentional but I would actually like to see them combining their respective talents to create a more cohesive whole. It’s also true to say that tonight, at the Traverse Theatre, the two performers are pretty much preaching to the converted. I doubt there’s a single person in the room who actively disagrees with what they are saying.

The result is therefore a strangely muted affair. It would be very interesting to see this performed to a more partisan audience, one featuring people with an entirely different view of the Brexit situation. As it stands, this feels a little too comfortable, a little too lacking in fire and urgency.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Velvet Petal

23/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Velvet Petal, choreographed by Fleur Darkin, is a compelling piece about identity and self-image, emergence and self-discovery. Performed by twelve dancers, it’s as much performance art as it is dance theatre, a series of thematically linked ideas and images, overlapping to create a sensation rather than a story.

Inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography, Patti Smith’s poetry and the migration of Monarch butterflies, the characters veer between languid and frenetic, assured and tentative. These are young people, in a bedroom or at a house party, trying poses and costumes,  selecting and rejecting a range of personae. Who are they, and how do they want to be seen?

They rarely work together (although when they do, moving mechanically, as if by rote, to a nightclub hit, it is singularly arresting). Instead, the stage is filled with micro-tales, vignettes of love and sex, of sadness and joy, with bystanders occupying the edges, watching or cuddling, or changing outfit for the seventh time. Sometimes, the lighting directs us to a key moment: two lovers slowly removing their clothes, hesitant, making themselves vulnerable; a young woman contorting herself to fit into a suit hanging on a rail, assuming an identity that seems uncomfortable, then summarily swept aside, despite all her effort. At other times, it’s hard to know where to look, there’s so much going on: one thing is certain, no two audience members will have seen exactly the same show.

The dancers’ physical control is extraordinary; for all its sensual punk-rebel attitude, this is a perfectly drilled piece, precise and disciplined. And the soundtrack, from Leonard Cohen to The Cure, is oddly powerful, mirroring and magnifying both anxiety and desire.

My inclination is towards more narrative art forms; I tend to favour story over concept. But when a production is as absorbing as Velvet Petal, I’ll take it exactly as it comes.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Taming of the Shrew

 

13/03/19

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ve never seen The Taming of the Shrew. I know the play, of course (I’ve even written essays about it), and I’ve been entertained by a number of intriguing reinterpretations in various forms: Kiss Me Kate, 10 Things I Hate About You, Vinegar Girl. But I’ve never seen it staged. Maybe because it’s arguably Shakespeare’s most contentious play – although The Merchant of Venice certainly has its issues too – and difficult to reconcile with modern sensibilities.

For those readers who need a quick reminder, the ‘shrew’ of the title is Kate, a wayward young woman, whose volatility deters any would-be beaux. Her father – based on some labyrinthine reasoning – imposes a bizarre rule: her sweet-natured sister, Bianca, cannot marry before Kate. But Bianca is a popular girl, and her suitors do not want to wait. Enter Petruchio, with a plan to break the older girl’s spirit. He bullies, half starves, gaslights and manipulates her into submission. In a modern play, this would be the midway point; we’d see Kate regain her equilibrium and Petruchio punished. But here, this is the denouement. It’s most uncomfortable.

And it’s not just the gender politics that make TTOTS problematic. The plot is convoluted and over-contrived, the humour weirdly at odds with the central relationship. It’s a tough call for any theatre company, let alone one so young as the EUSC.

But, under Tilly Botsford’s direction, this is a marked success. We’re never in any doubt that Petruchio (played with chilling self-righteousness by Michael Hajiantonis) is an awful man: he treats his servants with the same foul aggression as his wife. I applaud the decision to cast women as the servants too, emphasising the power of the patriarchal structure, and underscoring the theme of domestic violence.

Sally MacAlister is marvellous as Grumio. She clearly relishes the role, and imbues the much put-upon servant with humour and brio. Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller also stands out as Vincentio: he inhabits this small role with a natural ease that is very impressive.

Of course, Anna Swinton has the hardest job: she’s Kate, and it’s a tough part to play. Perhaps, in some earlier scenes, her body language could be less languid and more combative, but this is a small point. Because her often mute response to Pertuchio’s bullying is nuanced as well as unequivocal, and – in that final moment – when she delivers her speech about why a wife should submit to her husband – the desperation of this broken woman is heartbreaking to witness.

This EUSC production shows then that it is perfectly possible to deliver this controversial play exactly as it stands, without compromising our changed values. A difficult undertaking, but most worthwhile.

4 stars

Susan Singfield