Theatre

The Dumb Waiter

07/07/21

Old Vic: In Camera

Some questions are no-brainers. Would I like to see The Old Vic’s production of The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter? Well, as I consider it to be among the finest one-act plays in history, the answer to that is a resounding yes.

Am I able to be part of the socially-distanced audience for one of its live performances? Well, no, that’s awkward. It’s a long way from Edinburgh to London – but luckily, for a small fee, I can choose to watch it online as it is transmitted live, so it’ll be the next best thing to actually being there.

And who are the chosen performers for this production? David Thewlis as Ben and Daniel Mays as Gus. When I think about it, I can’t come up with two more appropriate actors for those roles. Thewlis promises to be a perfect fit for the snappy, irritable Ben, while Mays, with his perpetual hangdog look, is just right for his hapless subordinate, Gus.

The tickets are duly booked and a reminder is popped into the diary. All good.

The Dumb Waiter first arrived on the London stage in 1960 and, in many ways, it’s the play that first cemented Harold Pinter’s reputation. It’s the tale of two hit-men, sequestered in a grubby room, waiting to kill whoever walks through the doorway. The room is pretty featureless apart from the titular dumb waiter, and the men’s rambling conversation is punctuated by a series of seemingly meaningless instructions that are delivered within it.

Of course this antiquated piece of machinery is a metaphor for something – and the beauty of the play is that a viewer’s interpretation of what it might actually represent can be wide-ranging and inventive. Across the years, I’ve seen this performed in various venues and, back in the dim and distant past, have even been part of a youth theatre production of it. The play has been a huge influence on so many other productions – Martin McDonagh’s wonderful film In Bruges, for instance, clearly owes it a considerable debt.

So, the play begins at the appointed time, and yes, Thewlis and Mays are every bit as good as anticipated. Perhaps it doesn’t help that I know the script so well I could probably be working as a prompt – so there was never any chance of surprising me here, since director Jeremy Herrin has opted to play it straight, sticking to the original staging. What’s missing, of course, is the subtle electricity that’s generated by being present at the actual event, the indefinable frisson of watching the play unfold right in front of my gaze without the inevitable distancing that ensues whenever a play is turned into a movie.

In short, I’m still longing to return to the theatre for real. Until that time, The Dumb Waiter is a fine way to pass an hour and I urge you to watch it while you still have the chance. You’ll find the link here: https://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2021/live-stream-from-home/old-vic-in-camera-the-dumb-waiter

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Adam

15/03/21

BBC iPlayer

Trans men must be one of the most under-represented groups in the UK. I read a lot of news; I watch a lot of films and, when there are no pandemic restrictions, I am an avid theatre goer. But, despite the (anecdotal) fact that I know more trans men than I do women, I very rarely see them referred to; their stories largely seem to go untold.

Adam, then, is important not just because of what it says, but because it exists at all – and on a mainstream platform too. The BBC is under fire at the moment, but we shouldn’t forget what it offers us. If commercial viability is the only factor by which content is judged, marginalised people remain invisible to the masses, their experiences rendered forever ‘fringe.’

Indeed, Adam premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, a National Theatre of Scotland production at the Traverse Theatre, where it was highly acclaimed. This new version, written by Frances Poet and directed by Cora Bissett and Louise Lockwood, again stars Adam Kashmiry as himself, and chronicles his experiences as an Egyptian trans man, alone and frightened in a Glasgow flat, awaiting the results of his asylum application. Adam can’t return to Egypt: revealing his true identity there could result in his death. But he can’t use his gender identity to claim asylum in the UK until he transitions, and he can’t transition until he is granted asylum. Trapped in this double bind, no wonder Adam struggles to cope…

This hour-long film is beautifully constructed. It does always feel more like a play than a movie, but that’s not to its detriment. Yasmin Al-Khudhairi appears as Adam’s female-looking outer self, and offers us an occasional and understated glimpse into how others perceive him. The rest of the supporting cast is strong too, especially Neshla Caplan as a sour-faced immigration officer. But this is Adam Kashmiry’s story, and it is his film too: his performance is compelling, haunting – and heartwarming. Because, although this story is one of unimaginable hardship and pain, it’s also one of triumph over adversity. Here he is: a free man, telling his own tale.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

A Gambler’s Guide to Dying

26/01/21

Traverse Online

We’re a little late to this one, which is a shame because A Gambler’s Guide to Dying, written and performed by Gary McNair, is a charming and engaging monologue, a delightful way to fill a spare hour. It’s the story of the narrator’s grandfather, a hardbitten Glaswegian, who discovers a love for betting on a long shot, even when such an approach incurs the wrath of the drinkers in his local bar.

Undeterred, Granddad continues with his mission, placing an accumulator bet every day, never spending any of his winnings, and always keeping an eye on the potential millions he might one day be able to leave for his family. When he is diagnosed with a fatal illness, he even spots an opportunity to turn that into a lucrative betting proposition.

Can he somehow outlive the remaining time that his doctors have predicted for him?

This could so easily have been mawkish and overly sentimental, but McNair’s approach is too skilful to allow that to happen. The marvel here is that the narrator manages to take on several roles in this story, never relying on costume changes or make-up, but just adding subtle vocal inflexions to identify each character. Gareth Nicholls’ and Siri Rødnes’s simple but effective direction develops this, positioning the camera to establish who is who, so that I’m never in any doubt as to which of them is speaking at any given moment, even when it’s a quick-fire exchange of words between grandfather and grandson.

I also love that McNair steadfastly refuses to offer a straightforward happy ending to his tale, yet somehow manages to use the gut-punch of failure to give his story a realistic, yet satisfying conclusion. The tragedy here is that this little gem will only be available to stream for one more day.

Do try to catch it.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Hamilton

15/01/21

Disney +

Yes, I know, I know. What took us so long?

Well, I’ll be absolutely honest. I had some trepidation about watching this and most of it can be attributed to one three letter word. Rap. I haven’t previously been known for my appreciation of that musical form. Furthermore, I’m also unashamed to say that I’d never heard of Alexander Hamilton until Lin Manuel Miranda’s celebrated musical took the world by storm. But, finally here it is on Disney +, just waiting for me to get up the courage to press the button. Eventually, I can put it off no longer…

And of course, there is a large helping of humble pie waiting to be consumed. And while some of this most assuredly is rap – even in my ignorance, I picked up on a brief homage to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five – for the most part it’s an assured musical packed with memorable songs and some swaggering performances.

Alexander Hamilton (Lin Manuel Miranda) was an American statesman, politician , military commander, lawyer, banker and economist. (But what did he do in his spare time, you might ask?) The musical follows his progress from eager student to influential founding father; it marks his first encounters with Aaron Burr ((Leslie Odom Jnr), and his time as right-hand man to George Washington (Chris Jackson). There’s his romance and marriage to Eliza (Phillipa Soo), his platonic relationship with her sister, Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and his skirmishes with Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs). Whenever things threaten to become a tad too serious, up pops Jonathan Groff as a simpering, preening King George, to lament about the loss of his colonies, accompanied by a jolly, bouncing melody.

After some initial reluctance, I find myself increasingly drawn into the story. It’s a complicated one that lends itself surprisingly well to the disciplines of the form. It’s interesting to note that when Shakespeare’s plays were first produced, they were performed in iambic pentameter, the voices strictly tied to the rhythm, which is, in a way, what Miranda is doing here, the different vocal exchanges perfectly judged and executed.

And, while it’s mostly about the songs and the incisive wordplay, there are also plenty of theatrical flourishes to catch the eye, excellent ensemble choreography, superb costumes and some astute stagecraft. Hamilton looks like a class act and that also contributes to its success.

So, yes, I’m glad I finally watched this and also I’m pleased that I learned something about an era of American history I previously knew little about. Strangely, with everything that’s happening in the USA right now, maybe I saw it at exactly the right time.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Dick Whittington

25/12/20

National Theatre Live

It’s Christmas Day, but it doesn’t really feel like it. We’ve done our best, but our family is scattered across three of the United Kingdom’s four nations, and various Covid-restrictions and shielding-needs make visiting impossible. So, for the first time in my life, I’m not sharing the festivities with my mum or dad or brother today, and we’re not seeing Philip’s daughter either. Not in person anyway. But we’re all determined to make the best of it, so we assemble our fancy breakfasts and log in to Zoom for a present exchange. And we know we’re lucky: none of us is alone, and we all have access to technology. It’ll do. It’ll have to.

We’ve also got a panto lined up, because what’s Christmas without one? Philip and I have attended the always-fabulous King’s Theatre’s offerings in Edinburgh since we moved here, but pantos have loomed large for me ever since I was a little girl. Not only did we go to see them, I was often in them as well, as a member of the Rhyl Children’s Little Theatre company. “Look out! Here comes the Baron!” See, I still remember my first ever line, spoken from the depths of the chorus.

The National Theatre’s 2020 offering, originally commissioned by the Lyric Hammersmith, is available for free on YouTube until midnight on 27th December (although they are asking for donations, which seems fair enough). We’re all primed and ready in our respective homes: 7.30pm for curtain up, and a group chat arranged for the interval.

It takes me about twenty minutes to warm to the show, if I’m honest, probably because panto is usually such an immersive experience, one where inhibitions are discarded, and our love of the silly and outrageous can be indulged. Shouting and waving at the iMac from the sofa just doesn’t quite cut it.

But, once I’ve settled in and accepted this for what it is, I really start to enjoy it. Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings is the eponymous Dick; he’s come from Leeds to London because he’s heard it’s brilliant there. But outgoing Mayor Pigeon (Laura Checkley) is presiding over a crumbling city, and her likely successor, Queen Rat (Amy Booth-Steel) wants to drag it even further down. But the real spirit of London, the time-bending Bow Belles (Melanie La Barrie) thinks Dick might be exactly what the city needs. She watches as the irrepressibly optimistic young man befriends the high-top-obsessed Tom Cat (Cleve September), and then finds lodgings with café-owner/Dame Sarah (Dickie Beau) and her daughter, Alice (Georgina Onuorah), before telling him her plan: Dick should stand against Queen Rat to become London’s mayor!

There’s ingenuity a-plenty here, as you’d expect from a team like this. The script (by Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd) sizzles along, maintaining a delightful balance between the traditional and the topical, the shambolic and the spectacular. This is theatre-in-the-round, which is unusual for a pantomime, but works well, the clock-face of the stage underscoring the idea of time that’s so integral to the piece. It’s theatre-in-the-pandemic too, and director Ned Bennett embraces rather than conceals limitations this imposes, with some delightful comic touches that somehow make it all okay. The stand-out for me is the socially-distanced pantomime horse, which has a two-metre gap between its shoulders and its bum.

Hodgson-Mullings is really winsome, a convincing beacon of hope in dark times. And Booth-Steel is the perfect villain, clearly relishing the role. We find ourselves mimicking her strange accent during our interval catch-up. Dickie Beau’s Dame (fabulously costumed by Georgia Lowe) is a treat too, all sparkling goodwill and vivacious wit.

The National Theatre is hoping to open up for socially-distanced in-person shows again as soon as is safely possible, and I really hope they can. The sudden ‘new-variant-extra-measures’ lockdown, although of course necessary, must have left them reeling: so much time, money and talent has been invested here, and to know this joyous performance has been punctured in this way is heartbreaking even from this distance. As soon as things change, do try to see this. It really deserves an audience.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Lyceum Christmas Tales

17/12/20

Lyceum Online

God, how we’ve missed The Lyceum! We’ve seen so many wonderful productions here over the years and it really doesn’t help that we live just around the corner, and so see it standing forlorn and empty on an almost daily basis. The production team for Christmas Tales had hoped to be able to admit socially distanced audiences to these live performances, had even gone to the lengths of adapting the stage to accommodate them, but it was not to be. So, in the end, Christmas Tales is a streaming-only affair.

Designed as a kind of family-friendly advent calendar, eight short plays are available to watch for free on the Lyceum’s website – and this pay-for-view special features four longer tales, streamed live direct from the theatre’s stage. The pieces vary in tone and are linked by some truly spellbinding folk tunes. We are treated to The Christmas Ghost by Louise Ironside, the story of a young boy (Ryan Hunter) discovering an unexpected presence in his house. Jackie Kay’s Christmas with Angela Davis is the evocative memoir of a young Glaswegian girl (Helen Katamba) falling under the spell of the imprisoned activist after seeing her face on that famous poster.

There’s an interval at the midway point (though of course, we miss the chattering crowd in the bar) and then we’re back for the second half.

The Returning of the Light by Lynda Radley is the stirring saga of a young girl (Kirsty Findlay)’s quest to bring the sunlight back to her winter-ravaged village. Finally, my favourite of the quartet, A Cold Snap by Shona Reppe is the story of Carole (Irene Allan), a contemporary suburban Scrooge, who finds herself forced to ‘celebrate’ the festive season by a mischievous Norwegian sprite.

There’s a genuine air of magic throughout the show, with the cast utilising the full depth of the Lyceum’s extended stage to great effect. A Cold Snap in particular uses the format of film to canny effect, with ever more elaborate festive decorations seeming to appear out of nowhere.

Afterwards, we head out for our nightly walk around the empty city and, quite by chance, bump into Ryan Hunter, on his way back to his lodgings, guitar across his back. We’re able to congratulate him, which is, I suppose, the closest that any of the cast of this charming show can hope to get to the hearty round of applause they deserve.

But this is 2020 and we must be realistic. Until we can safely return to the theatre, shows like this serve as a timely reminder of how truly enchanting the theatre can be – and of how profoundly we are missing it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Click To Connect

09/12/20

We’ve seen many enjoyable musicals from this talented student company over the years, but in 2020 – for pretty obvious reasons – they’ve had to make some radical adjustments to their usual approach. With all the cast members stuck in their own spaces, they’ve decided to embrace those limitations and the result is Click To Connect, an original play/movie musical filmed as a series of Zoom meetings. If this sounds underwhelming, don’t be misled. Others have tried this approach and foundered, but I’ve rarely seen the format appropriated with such brio.

The script, co-written by no less than five authors, concentrates on four relationships. Amy (Lucy Whelan) has recently broken up with her long time boyfriend and is now living with her parents. She contacts her friend, Sam (Nicola Alexander) and confesses the real reason why she is now single. Lex (Annie Docherty) and Kelsea (Leonie Findlay) are ex-partners, who’ve set up a double-date with their respective new interests, Mia (Kristen Wong) and Tom (Attir Basri) but, once the chat is underway, things don’t quite go to plan. Finally, Sadie (Rachel Cozens) is living away from her husband, George (Sebastian Schneeberger), and things have gone somewhat awry. Can their once-strong relationship be salvaged?

There are some breezy, melodic pop songs to kick things into action and nicely judged performances from Whelan and Alexander provide the piece’s strongest moments. I also love the way that Zoom’s limitations are cannily incorporated into the storyline – a warning that we are going to be kicked off after a set time (because we haven’t paid to use the service for longer than 40 minutes) is deftly employed and there’s even an attempt to simulate the inevitable dodgy wi-fi signal for one character.

Click to Connect is a timely example of how artistic ingenuity can overcome severe limitations and EUSOG have certainly risen to the challenge with aplomb. Of course we all look forward to the times when we can head back to the Pleasance to watch their next venture, but until then, this will do nicely.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

What a Carve Up!

11/11/20

Barn Theatre Online

Jonathan Coe’s acclaimed satirical novel of the early 90s is an intriguing choice for a theatrical adaptation, especially when it has been filmed during lockdown with a socially distanced cast. Indeed, it’s hard to know quite how to categorise this co-production between the Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre and New Wolsey Theatre – though the word uppermost in my mind is ‘ingenious.’

It’s essentially a film – it had to be – and yet it feels unmistakably theatrical. There are just three physically present actors on this virtual stage, and indeed only two of them actually share a scene (even then, I can’t be sure they didn’t use a special effect). But, through clever use of stock footage, memorabilia, posters and still images – and with character voiceovers supplied by stalwarts like Derek Jacobi, Rebecca Front, Griff Rhys Jones and Stephen Fry, it feels somehow like a big cast is at work here.

Staged rather like one of those amateur ‘true crime’ shows to be found on social media, Alfred Enoch stars as Raymond Owen, who, years after the event, is re-examining an old murder case for which his father, the novelist Michael Owen, was been widely blamed. The victims were six members of the rich and powerful Winshaw family, movers and shakers in the Thatcher era, all of them killed in highly theatrical ways (much like the critics murdered by Vincent Price’s character in Theatre of Blood).

But Raymond feels he has uncovered new evidence that proves his father couldn’t have been the killer. Elsewhere, The Journalist (Tamzin Outhwaite) interviews the sole surviving member of the Winshaw clan, Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button) about some of the strange irregularities of the case. Button is excellent, all wide-eyed innocence at on moment and then cuttingly vitriolic the next.

What ensues is a labyrinthine story that drags the viewer from one possibility to the next. Coe’s tale has been brought bang up to date with mentions of Dominic Cummings and Covid and makes it quite clear that not much has changed since the nineties, with the rich and privileged still exerting a malign influence over the world of politics.

Tickets for this show can be booked online and once downloaded, viewers have 48 hours to watch the piece before the link expires. While it’s not as good as an actual live visit to a show, it’s certainly the closest we can hope for at the moment and all profits will go to supporting regional theatres.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Crave

04/11/20

Chichester Festival Theatre (Live Streaming)

The title feels apt, because we have been craving live theatre. And this production of Sarah Kane’s bleakly poetic play, directed by Tinuke Craig, is the closest we can get. It’s actually playing as we speak, not recorded live and then shown again. It’s real! And somehow, with the lights turned low, some of that theatrical magic makes it through our computer monitor and we’re transfixed.

Our sense of immersion owes a lot to Alex Lowde’s set design. It’s stark and minimalistic: just four conveyer belts driving the characters onwards, enlarged footage of their faces projected onto the screen behind. The stage revolves too, adding to the sense that none of these characters has any control over what happens to them. They’re stuck on their individual treadmills, too consumed by the inexorable motion to look around or make any real connections.

Kane’s play famously has no stage directions; nor are there any character names or notes; nor does the text make clear who is speaking to whom at any point. Here, they mostly speak into the void, four disparate figures, each desperate to be heard. When they do make contact with one another, it’s fleeting, and ultimately unhelpful. At first, it’s confusing: a cacophony of sound and imagery. But, in the end, it’s like an incomplete jigsaw. Yes, there are gaps; no, we don’t have all the pieces and there are no easy answers. But a compelling picture has emerged, and we are utterly engaged.

Erin Docherty (C) and Jonathan Slinger (A) have the showiest of the parts: as an abused child and a self-pitying paedophile. They’re both terrific. Wendy Kweh (M) and Alfred Enoch (B) are great too, but their roles are more understated and so less memorable.

In the end, it just feels wonderful to experience challenging theatre again. As lockdowns – either full or partial – look set to continue for some time yet, I hope we can at least look forward to more of this.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Scenes for Survival

27/08/20

BBC iPlayer/YouTube

Scenes for Survival is a series of short digital artworks created by leading Scottish theatre and screen talent, co-produced by the BBC and the National Theatre of Scotland.

It’s a mixed bag, that’s for sure, a veritable cornucopia of ideas, all inspired by or relating to lockdown. Their variety is their strength; there is a sense of universality, of common suffering. Some of them are frustratingly short: the briefest of glimpses into a situation or psyche, and – inevitably – some are better than others, although they’re all high quality, as they should be, with actors, writers and directors of such calibre.

The obvious standout so far (they’re still being made) is Fatbaws, written by Douglas Maxwell and performed by Peter Mullan. It’s a simple, cheeky little idea – a man being bullied by the birds in his garden – but the writing is exquisite and Mullan’s performance is jaw-droppingly good, a masterclass in character acting. No mean feat when two of the characters are a crow and a pigeon.

I also like Larchview by Rob Drummond, where Mark “Ubiquitous” Bonnar plays a disgraced minister making a public apology for breaking lockdown rules. His progression from phoney contrition to peevish defensiveness is deftly conceived, and there’s redemption too, as he begins to hear the emptiness of his excuses, and a real sense of remorse emerges. It’s cleverly humanising – and Lord knows our politicians need a bit of that.

Alan Cummings stars in Johnny McKnight’s twisty three-parter, Out of the Woods. It’s a shaky hand-cam thriller, depicted as a series of FaceTime calls between a man and his mother and his child. He’s creeping through the woods to his estranged partner’s house; he’s picking up their daughter, but her other dad is not to know…

But honestly, even if these don’t appeal, there are so many to choose from, there’s something here for everyone. Retired Inspector Rebus (Brian Cox – not that one) puts in an appearance, courtesy of Ian Rankin, and there are contributions from many of Scotland’s best-loved creatives, including Val McDermid, Elaine C Smith and Janey Godley.

So, take a peek. See what tickles your fancy. Because strong original content has been a rarity for the past few months, and these are a real treat, as well as a vital documentation of our times.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield