Theatre

Miss Saigon

19/01/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The story of Madame Butterfly first saw the light of day as a short story in 1898 and in 1904 became a celebrated opera by Puccini.

In their version of the tale, Boublil and Schonberg – creators of Les Miserables –  update the action to Saigon (as it was then called) in 1975, as American involvement in the Vietnamese war heads into a devastating tailspin. The result is Miss Saigon: an epic theatrical event, brilliantly staged, superbly performed and totally enthralling.

Kim (Sooha Kim) is a naive country girl on the run from an arranged marriage to Thuy (Gerald Santos), a man she does not love. Kim is quickly seized upon by ‘The Engineer’ (Red Concepcion), a cunning wheeler-dealer, currently earning his daily noodles by showing the visiting American troops a good time. Sex, drugs, whatever they want: he can provide it – for the right price. He is quick to realise Kim’s innocence could make him a lot of money. But when he teams her up with handsome young soldier Chris (Ashley Gilmour), something approaching true love blossoms between them. In the heat of the moment, they go through a traditional Vietnamese wedding ceremony. But then some devastating news comes through: the Americans are pulling out of the war and heading home. Chris is subsequently forced to leave the country without his new wife.

Okay, so it’s not the most original story in the world – there have been plenty of films and plays over the years that have trodden a similar path. What makes this work so effectively is its epic sense of scale. There are thirty-eight actors working the stage in this production and they all give it everything they’ve got. The leads offer dazzling vocal performances – Kim and Gilmour are particularly strong, while Concepcion offers a mesmerising characterisation as a born survivor doing what he does best (his ‘American Dream’ set piece is a particular standout). The music, set design, costumes and movement are all of the highest standard and the show is as slick as quicksilver on a hot plate.

I must also single out one stunning coup de theatre, the final flight from the American Embassy, where the designers have somehow contrived to create a full scale helicopter hovering above the crowds gathered at the gates, a scene I watch in open-mouthed amazement. It shouldn’t be possible on a stage but it’s utterly convincing, a thrilling, eye-popping delight.

As for the story’s conclusion, I’m sure it can’t be construed as a spoiler if I warn you to take some paper hankies along with you. This is heartbreaking stuff and it’s a staunch soul indeed who will leave the Festival Theatre unmoved by what they’ve just seen. Many of the big blockbuster musicals fail to grip me, but Miss Saigon is a notable exception. I am riveted from start to finish.

Take my advice. Grab some tickets and buckle in for a wild ride. You won’t be disappointed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

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Theatre Bouquets 2017

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Once again we have been wowed by some fantastic theatre this year. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of 2017.

The Winter’s Tale – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Winter's Tale

This thrilling, modern-day version of Shakespeare’s play was dynamic and audacious – with the whole fourth act recast in Scots. We loved every minute of it, especially Maureen Beattie’s performance as Paulina.

Chess: The Musical  – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Chess

The students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland thrilled the audience with a skilful display of all things theatrical. We loved the sophisticated choreography (often incorporating the real time use of video cameras) and choral singing that sent chills down our spines.

Nell Gwyn – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Nell Gwyn\

This superb production of Jessica Swales’ Olivier Award-winning comedy was a delight in just about every respect. From the superbly realised set, through to the opulent costumes and the lively period music, this was fabulous to behold.

Death of a Salesman – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Death of a Salesman

It was the direction that made this production so good: Abigail Graham did a wonderful job of clarifying everybody’s pain. And Nicholas Woodeson was perfect for the lead role, conveying Willy’s struggle with warmth and vitality.

The Toxic Avenger – Pleasance One, Edinburgh

The Toxic Avenger

A musical in the same vein that made Little Shop of Horrors such a pleasure, The Toxic Avenger was an unqualified delight, romping happily along powered by its own exuberance and the efforts of a stellar cast, who gave this everything they had – and then some.

The Power Behind the Crone – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

The Power Behind the Crone

This was a wonderful piece of theatre, an exemplar of a Fringe show: beautifully scripted, and acted with precision and panache. Alison Skilbeck had absolute control of the material and created an impressive range of distinct, believable characters.

Seagulls – The Leith Volcano, Edinburgh

Volcano Theatre SEagulls at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

This was the most ambitious, exhilarating piece of theatre we saw this year. Site-specific productions – when the site is as spectacular and relevant as this (we were in an abandoned church, which had been flooded with forty-five tons of water) – can be truly exciting, and this one had a lot to offer.

Safe Place – Rose Street Theatre, Edinburgh

Safe Place

Safe Place provided a sensitive, insightful examination of the uneasy relationship between trans-activism and feminism. It asked (and answered) many questions, all within the framework of a nuanced and intelligent play.

Angels in America: NT Live – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Angels In America

Clocking in at just under eight hours, Tony Kushner’s play offered us a “gay fantasia on national themes” – a sprawling, painful and searingly funny depiction of New York in the 1980s, fractured and ill-prepared to deal with the AIDS epidemic. A truly iconic piece of theatre.

Twelfth Night/Romeo & Juliet – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Twelfth Night

Romeo & Juliet

Merely Theatre gave us some ‘stripped-back’ Shakespeare, performing Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet in rep. The plays featured only five actors and the casting was gender-blind. It all made for an interesting dynamic and prompted us to re-examine familiar scenes.

Cockpit – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Cockpit

Cockpit was a witty, clever play, which saw the Lyceum transformed into a truly immersive space.  Director Wils Wilson served up a fascinating piece of theatre: arresting, thought-provoking, provocative and demanding – and it kept us talking for hours afterwards.

Cinderella – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Cinderella

We never thought a pantomime would feature in any ‘best of’ list of ours but, for the second year running, the King’s Theatre’s stalwarts managed to wow us. Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott knew exactly how to work their audience, and the special effects were truly spectacular.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

The Tin Soldier

 

The Studio, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

09/12/17

Bird of Paradise Theatre’s production of The Tin Soldier is an object lesson in the art of storytelling. It’s thoughtful and vibrant and beautifully done.

Jack (Robert Softley Gale) and his friends live in The Place. Based on the Internats, where non-ambulant disabled children were ‘dumped’ in Soviet Russia, The Place is cold, inhospitable and under-staffed. Left to their own devices, the children forge strong ties, creating their own family units. And, central to this bonding process, is the sharing and telling of stories.

The appeal of The Tin Soldier is obvious: the loyal, steadfast toy is one of very few positive depictions of a disabled character in children’s fiction. He might not have a happy ending, but he’s undoubtedly the hero of the tale: dogged, determined, loving and loveable.

But the real beauty of this piece is all in the telling. The multi-media, multi-format approach is beguiling: the story is told simultaneously through spoken word, sign language, subtitles, music and animation. If that sounds chaotic, it’s not. It’s all perfectly choreographed, each form complementing the next, adding subtle layers of meaning and complexity. Caroline Parker, as the aptly-named Dancer, is especially mesmerising, signing the songs centre-stage; it’s visually stunning, even though I don’t know sign language.

Bird of Paradise’s artistic vision is of “a culture where disabled artists are recognised for the excellence of their work” – and Softley Gale, Parker and Joseph Brown (Kipper) certainly merit accolades for these performances.

The music is provided by Novasound, aka Audrey Tait and Lauren Gilmour. It’s lovely: Gilmour’s voice has a plaintive quality that really suits the tale.

The Tin Soldier is playing until the 23rd December, so if you’re looking for a festive family show that goes beyond the obvious, then why not take a look at this? You won’t be disappointed.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Arabian Nights

07/12/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Arabian Nights is unusual: a children’s Christmas show that never mentions Christmas. Of course it doesn’t – this is a collection of mainly Middle Eastern and Indian stories – but they’re wonderfully apt for the festive season, as marvellous and magical as can be. Suhayla El-Bushra’s script is sprightly and engaging, and nicely complemented by Joe Douglas’s lively direction. This is a delightful production.

At its centre is Scheherazade  (Rehanna MacDonald), a young girl who has fallen foul of the tyrannical Sultan (Nicholas Karimi). Desperate to stay her impending execution, she regales the taciturn leader with tales she has learned from her storyteller mother (Neshla Caplan). Despite professing to hate stories, the Sultan is beguiled, demanding more and more. And, as time goes by, the two develop an unlikely friendship.

The staging is lovely: simple but evocative, brightly coloured and celebratory. And the stories are beautifully told: there’s puppetry and music, shadow-play and song. It’s zesty and energetic, the stories tumbling across the stage as quickly and impressively as the acrobats. It could be chaotic, but it’s not, even when we are faced with a sequence of four (or is it five?) tales within tales, each left open as the next begins, a masterful piece of writing if ever there was one. The actors are fantastic too: a true ensemble, most performing many roles with humour and precision.

Accessible yet profound; moving yet funny; sophisticated yet full of fart jokes: this is perfectly pitched for a family audience.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Cinderella

06/12/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe but the pantomime season is already upon us! In Edinburgh, of course, that can mean only one thing: the annual Christmas panto at the King’s Theatre, presented once again (in fact, for the thirteenth year in succession!) by the ‘gleesome threesome’ of Allan Stewart, Andy Grey and Grant Stott. If you were worried that their enduring domination of this seasonal slot might have led to a certain sloppiness, don’t be misled. Cinderella is just as assured a production as ever, and the ease of the three performers with each other is evident from the off-set. The highest compliment I can give them is that they make this look so easy, when in fact pantomime is one of the hardest theatrical disciplines to get right.

Mind you, they don’t mind subverting some of the established rules of panto either. Why not have four dames, for instance? A nice one (Stewart as Fairy May), a mean one (Stott as Baroness Hibernia Hardup), and two that are … well, women (Clare Grey and Maureen Carr as the Ugly Sisters)? And who ever said that Cinderella (Gillian Parkhouse) and Prince Charming (James Darch) can’t be involved in some of the funniest scenes? Meanwhile, it’s left to Grey to deliver his usual dim-witted, prat-falling persona as Buttons. Okay, so some of his material may have sailed into Edinburgh with Noah, but my goodness, he makes me laugh!

So, what we get is a fine festive banquet, replete with colourful costumes, energetic dance routines, double entendres, local banter and lashings of general silliness. Any mistakes that occur are gleefully pounced upon and incorporated into the hilarity and there’s plenty of skilful audience interplay – anyone would think these guys know what they’re doing.  Just when I’m thinking ‘this is great but there’s nothing here to rival last year’s stunning ‘helicopter’ sequence’, the special visual effects team unleash a creation that has large sections of the audience – me included – gasping out loud in a ‘how did they do that?’ kind of way. 

If you and your family are looking to get into the festive spirit, this would be a really good place to start. Cinderella runs until January 21st and there are still some tickets available at time of writing, but please don’t hang about… they’re selling like the proverbial hot mince pies!

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Oliver!

 

29/11/17

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

Ah, Oliver! Beloved by schools and youth groups, its jaunty sing-a-long-a-songs and larger-than-life characters mean that we often forget what it’s really about, the squalor and violence of Dickens’ London romanticised beyond recognition: all cute kids and bright handkerchiefs, the focus on the (frankly dubious) rags to riches element of the tale.

EUSOG’S version, directed by Erica Belton, works hard to avoid this trap. Of course, this being a student production, there are no sweet little eight-year-old performers who might need protecting from the grim realities of Victorian poverty, and so we’re free to see the savagery of the poorhouse in an electrifying opening scene, where the desperate inmates swarm through the auditorium towards their meagre meal, a starving horde reduced to zombies, caring solely about sustenance, and fighting for their share. Little wonder that Oliver (Yann Davies) asks for more: even his tiny helping of gruel has been snatched and devoured by others; he’s starving and has nothing to lose. His recklessness makes sense in this context – he’s not new to the workhouse; he knows his request will not be welcome – but this is a moment of rebellion born of deprivation.

I don’t need to outline the story – the musical’s ubiquity means there can be no surprises with the plot – but there are new interpretations of some of the characters. Fagin, for example, is played with wit and empathy by Kathryn Salmond. She shows the softer side of the avaricious old leech, ensuring we see that he is also a victim of a cruelly unfair society.   Reviewing the Situation is an absolute triumph, revealing much about the man.

Ashleigh More’s Artful Dodger is also interesting. More is an arresting performer: cheeky and lively and engaging as can be. Dodger’s heartbreak over Nancy’s death is beautifully bleak.

Grace Dickson (Nancy) also deserves a mention. She strikes just the right balance between strength and vulnerability, making us believe in and understand her doomed relationship with the evil Bill Sykes (Saul Garrett). I’m crying when she sings As Long As He Needs Me: willing her to leave, although of course I know she won’t; wishing she lived in a world where there was somewhere else for her to go.

Not everything about this production is perfect: perhaps more could have been made of the Sowerberrys’ scene, and of the stark contrast  between Oliver’s life so far and the luxury and opulence Mr Brownlow represents. Then there’s the inherent problem of a story where the hero is the least interesting person in it, almost a cypher, on whom we can project our own emotions and through whose eyes we see events unfold; this works well in Dickens’ novel, but is less successful on the stage.

Still, none of this prevents it from being a resounding success; it’s a lively, thought-provoking interpretation, with strong performances throughout. The choreography is very good indeed, and the orchestra plays beautifully (the violins are particularly memorable). This is definitely a show worth seeing, and it’s on until Saturday, so get yourself a ticket and go along. A note of caution though: take an extra sweater. The temperature in the Pleasance is positively Dickensian.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Legally Blonde: The Musical

27/11/17

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Legally Blonde began life as a movie in 2001, based on a semi-autobiographical (unpublished) manuscript by Amanda Brown. It became the subject of a Hollywood bidding war, made a star of Reese Witherspoon and went on to earn over one-hundred-and-forty million dollars at the box office (and this at a time when one-hundred-and-forty million dollars was considered a lot of money!). Perhaps it was inevitable that it would be turned into a musical but what few people could have anticipated was the fact that the resulting show would actually improve upon the film.

From the opening chords of the first song, this version – slickly directed and choreographed by Anthony Williams – is a bright, shiny bauble that virtually dares you not to enjoy its outrageous antics. Okay, so it’s double fluff with a side order of fluff but, my word, what brilliantly acted, superbly choreographed fluff it is!

Elle (Lucie Jones) is a style icon, the one that her friends seek out whenever they need tips about what clothes to wear and which make-up to team it with. When her long-term boyfriend, Warner (Liam Doyle), invites her out for a special meal, she confidently expects him to ask for her hand in marriage – so she’s absolutely devastated when he announces that he actually wants to dump her so he can devote more time to his studies at Harvard Law School. Desperate to win him back, Elle embarks on a daring mission. She will enrol at Harvard too and prove to him that she’s more than just a ditzy blonde…

Once there, she meets up with shy-but-caring fellow student, Emmett (David Barrett), the mendacious and influential Professor Callahan, (Bill Ward), and her rival for Warner’s affections, Vivienne (Laura Harrison). She also enlists a secret weapon: the much put-upon hairdresser and occasional muse, Paulette (Rita Simons), who helps Elle to achieve everything she wants and more.

At a time when the subject of women’s rights is receiving more attention than ever before, it seems particularly appropriate that this story is all about a woman triumphing over adversity and over men’s preconceptions about who she is and what she is capable of. The ‘Harvey Weinstein’ moment at the start of the second act is genuinely hard-hitting, prompting a moment of uncomfortable silence in amongst the candyfloss. It’s surprisingly effective. If I’m making it sound a bit po-faced, please don’t be fooled. The messages are all served up with huge dollops of fun. The script is often laugh-out-loud funny and there’re some eye-popping dance sequences (the one where a large group of dancers indulge in synchronised skipping is a particular stand-out). I also love the fact that, even with a cast of over twenty actors, everybody has their moment to shine.

If you’re in the mood for an enjoyable night at the theatre, you really won’t do much better than this. Only the stoniest-faced curmudgeons will be able to resist its charms. I used to think of myself as one of these… but there I was, clapping gleefully along with the rest of the audience.

Note to self: I really must try harder.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney