Theatre

Jesus Christ Superstar

25/01/23

Church Hill Theatre, Edinburgh

I’m by no means a big fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber (and I’m an atheist to boot) but I have to admit that I’ve always had a soft spot for Jesus Christ Superstar. Back in 1971, the ‘rock opera concept album’ (as it was originally styled) had a revered place in my vinyl collection and was played on a regular basis, much to the consternation of my flatmates. I genuinely believe that Webber’s rock inflected melodies and Tim Rice’s acerbic lyrics are one of the great musical partnerships of the seventies. It’s an ambitious show for a student group to take on, but EUSOG are good at rising to a challenge and, in this stirring, gender-blind production, they attack the familiar material with their customary brio.

Of course, at the the heart of the musical lies the adversarial relationship between Jesus (Roza Stephenson) and Judas (Hollie Avery), but there are plenty of other opportunities to shine and director Izzy Ponsford ensures they are not ignored. There’s a stately performance from Gordon Stackhouse as Pontius Pilate, a man haunted by the fact that his name will be forever associated with the murder of an innocent. Sofia Pricolo handles Mary Magdalene’s plaintive ballads with aplomb and actually manages to coax tears from me during I Don’t Know How to Love Him. As Herod, Joey Lawson offers a jaunty, crowd-pleasing turn, complete with flashy tap dancing, while Theo Chevis and Kathleen Davie convince in their chilling double act as the priests, Caiaphas and Annas.

But more than anything else, JCS is an ensemble piece, so hats off to the huge chorus of disciples and acolytes, who breathe life into this Biblical extravaganza. Emily Bealer’s exuberant choreography is perhaps the standout of the production, but the music is excellent too: a twelve-strong band under the joint supervision of Emily Paterson and Falk Meier, providing note-perfect renditions of all those memorable songs.

It’s also nice to see a EUSOG production in the comparative luxury of the Church Hill Theatre – we’ve seen them perform in a variety of locations and this is the best venue so far.

I leave humming one of my favourites songs – Could We Start Again Please?- having been thoroughly entertained.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Theatre Bouquets 2022

After the slim pickings of the last two years, 2022 feels like a palpable return to form: finally, emphatically, theatre is back! We’ve relished the wide range of productions we’ve seen over the year. As ever, it was difficult to choose our particular favourites, but those listed below have really resonated with us.


Singin’ in the Rain (Festival Theatre, Edinburgh)

Singin’ in the Rain is a delight from start to finish. It never falters, never loses pace and manages to honour the great film that inspired it. One of the most supremely entertaining shows I’ve seen in a very long time. Slick, assured, technically brilliant – it never puts a hoof wrong.

Wuthering Heights (King’s Theatre, Edinburgh)

In this Wise Children production, Emma Rice strips Wuthering Heights down to its beating heart, illuminates its essence. This is a chaotic, frenzied telling, a stage so bursting with life and energy that it’s sometimes hard to know where to look. It’s dazzling; it’s dizzying – and I adore it. 

Red Ellen (Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Red Ellen is a fascinating tale, ripped from the pages of political history. Wils Wilson’s propulsive direction has Ellen hurtling from one scene to the next, which keeps the pot bubbling furiously.

Prima Facie (NT Live, The Cameo, Edinburgh)

This is a call to action that walks the walk, directly supporting The Schools Consent Project, “educating and empowering young people to understand and engage with the issues surrounding consent and sexual assault”. It’s also a powerful, tear-inducing play – and Jodie Cromer is a formidable talent.

Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen (Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh)

Samuel Barnett inhabits his role completely, spitting out a constant stream of pithy one liners and wry observations with apparent ease. Marcelo Dos Santos’ script is utterly compelling and Matthew Xia’s exemplary direction ensures that the pace is never allowed to flag.

Hungry (Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh)

This sharply written two-hander examines the relationship between Lori (Eleanor Sutton), a chef from a relatively privileged background, and Bex (Melissa Lowe), a waitress from the local estate. This is a cleverly observed exploration of both class and race, brilliantly written and superbly acted. Hungry is a class act, so assured that, even amidst the host of treasures we saw at this year’s Roundabout, it dazzles like a precious gem.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (Summerhall (Main Hall), Edinburgh)

It’s hard to encapsulate what makes this such a powerful and moving experience, but that’s exactly what it is – a spellbinding slice of storytelling, so brilliantly conceived and engineered that it makes the incredible seem real. You’ll believe a man can fly.

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh)

Let’s face it, we’ve all seen Macbeth in its various shapes and guises – but I think it’s fairly safe to say we’ve never seen it quite like this. This raucous, visceral reimagining of the story captures the essence of the piece more eloquently than pretty much any other production I’ve seen.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

This was Martin McDonagh’s debut piece and, while it might not have the assuredness of his later works, it nonetheless displays all the hallmarks of an exciting new talent flexing his muscles. The influence of Harold Pinter is surely there in the awkward pauses, the repetitions, the elevation of innocuous comments to a weird form of poetry – and the performances are exemplary.

Don’t. Make. Tea. (Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh)

Don’t. Make. Tea. is a dystopian vision of an all-too credible near future, a play laced with dark humour and some genuine surprises. Cleverly crafted to be accessible to the widest possible audience, it’s an exciting slice of contemporary theatre.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

21/12/22

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s late December and it’s time for another panto from the King’s Theatre… 

Oh no it’s not! Because of course, the Old Lady of Leven Street is closed, awaiting its much heralded refurbishment, so this time the regular crew have relocated to the Festival Theatre, a much bigger space, but one that they fill with their usual raucous aplomb. This year’s panto is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which has a more complicated plot than most. Perhaps with this in mind, the set designer has usefully created a hi-tech ‘magic mirror’ which offers us a lengthy preamble to set the scene. Unfortunately, a bunch of latecomers troop across in front of me during this sequence, so I’m left to figure things out on that score. 

As usual May (Allan Stewart) is the absolute star of the show (she’s a Nurse this time around). Stewart has his persona fine-tuned to perfection, skipping around the stage in stilettos while offering perfectly-timed put-downs. Grant Stott eschews drag and plays it straight as the evil Lord Lucifer (the clue’s in the name), currently trapped in the magic mirror and hoping to gain his release with the help of the wicked Queen Dragonella (Liz Ewing). Jordan Young returns as Muddles, and has his physical routines down to a T. Muddles, of course,  is in love with the Princess Snow White (Francesca Ross), but she only has eyes for the handsome Prince Hamish (Brian James Leys). Meanwhile, Dragonella’s daughter, Princess Lavinia (Clare Gray), is having second thoughts about being such a thoroughly bad egg…

Look, with these pantos, the plot hardly matters. They are really just an excuse to have a fun time, and it’s clear from the exuberant reception as the curtain goes up that the audience has a lot of love for these seasoned performers and are ready to shout ‘It’s behind you!’ and bellow their best boos every time Stott stalks onto the stage. There’s the familiar check list of sure-fire comedy routines, some new additions (Stott’s song about the Edinburgh trams goes down a storm), plenty of references both topical and regional and, naturally, there are seven talented (and brilliantly costumed) dwarfs – with Kyle Herd even doubling as Nicola Sturgeon for a dance routine.

I laugh, I clap, I cheer, I boo and I genuinely have a great time with this charming production. They’ve started somewhat later than usual, so those who want to grab a generous helping of Ho, Ho. Ho! should book early to avoid disappointment. The show’s on until January 22nd, so come on, what are you waiting for? It’s not Christmas without a good panto. 

(And the first person to say “Oh yes it is” will be politely asked to leave.)

Merry Christmas everyone!

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Once Upon a Snowstorm

09/12/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Described as a play for children aged 5-8 and their families, Once Upon a Snowstorm is based on the popular picture book by Richard Johnson. It tells the tale of a boy (Fay Guiffo) and his dad (Michael Sherin), who live in a woodland cottage. One day, they go out to hunt in the snow, but are separated and the boy is lost. Eventually, he ftakes shelter in a cavern and falls asleep. When he awakes, he finds himself surrounded by friendly animals, who teach him all about their ways…

It’s a charming – if slight – tale. Although Jo Timmins’ adaptation includes dialogue, it retains the quiet solemnity of Johnson’s wordless original, as well as the gentle pace. It feels true to the book, capturing its tranquil, earnest tone, and illuminating the boy’s sense of wonder. I’m especially entranced by the music (composed by David Paul Jones), and the way Guiffo’s violin is integrated seamlessly into her performance.

Traverse 2 has been reconfigured for this show, and it’s good to see it being used imaginatively. The acting space is tented with crumpled white sheets, and the seating comprises rows of ‘tree stumps’ (covered stools) and cushions, presumably intended for the wee ones to sit on and, at the back, a single row of adult-sized chairs. On entering, we’re asked to hang up our coats and remove our shoes, which somehow adds to the sense of occasion: something different is happening here. Largely, it works well, although there are some issues with the sight lines. There’s no one organising the smallest children to the front rows, and not enough full-sized seats for the grown-ups accompanying them. I can understand the wish to create something intimate, with no clear boundaries. But it might make sense to place the beautiful model house on a higher plinth, so that we can actually see it, and for the boy not to spend quite so much time sitting or lying on the floor.

Sherin and Guiffo embody all the different animals, and their performances are enchanting. Perhaps there’s a little too much repetition for me (the same route through the audience; three different lots of projected images), but the target audience seem to lap it up and, at forty-five minutes, there’s no time for this to flag.

Once Upon a Snowstorm is a sweet, simple tale, with some beautiful imagery.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Cell Outs

24/11/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

As true stories go, the plot of Cell Outs is a remarkable one. Written and performed by Harriet Troup and Ella Church and directed by Grace Church, it’s the tale of two naïve drama school graduates who enlist on a new scheme that promises to allow them to bring their social justice dreams to light in the prison system. Sounds exciting, right? They eagerly sign up and, after just six weeks of basic training, they find themselves enrolled as… prison warders, working in two adjoining gaols. Troup is based in a male prison (delicately titled HM Prick for the purposes of this drama) while Church works at the women’s prison (HM Pussy).

They quickly learn that opportunities to use their drama skills are nonexistent. Instead, they must negotiate the endless litany of drug dealing, scrapping, tongue lashings and suicides that are part and parcel of everyday prison life. At first, they’re appalled by what they witness but, as the days roll inexorably by, they become increasingly hardened to the horrors, inured to the misery around them and in serious danger of becoming everything they dislike about the system.

Troup and Church are engaging performers and they attack their roles with gusto. We are presented with a series of sketches chronicling their descent into the abyss, interspersed with voice recordings from inmates and fellow workers. They also perform occasional musical interludes, which – it must be said – vary in quality. A clever parody of ‘Doe, a Deer,’ utilising prison vernacular is a particular highlight, but some of the rap-inflected offerings feel more generic.

If there’s a major issue here, it’s the play’s story arc, which starts bleak and funny and, without really developing, soon becomes just plain bleak. Furthermore, many of the major dramatic occurrences later in the drama are told rather than shown; for the true tragedy to strike home, we need to see a climactic incident played out before our eyes, rather than just hear about it.

Cell Outs is a unique story with a powerful central message, but it’s a message that occasionally feels a little obfuscated in its delivery.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Jinnistan

08/11/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Jinnistan, directed by Niloo-Far Khan, is the last of this season’s PPP productions, and – in a break with the norm – it’s in the ‘big theatre’, aka Traverse One. This seems fitting, as the play’s parameters are bigger than normal too, encompassing not just the world as we know it, but the spirit realm as well. The Jinnistan of the title co-exists with Pakistan – but relations are strained, to say the least.

Malik (Taqi Nazeer, who also wrote the script) moved from Scotland to Pakistan a year ago. His wife, Layla (Avita Jay), and teenage daughter, Asiya (Iman Akhtar), have followed him there. Asiya’s not happy, and neither is Malik. She wanted to stay at home with her pals. and he – well, he isn’t saying. I guess it isn’t easy to tell your family that it’s your destiny to be a genie-fighter, and that there are annual rituals you need to perform in order to save lives.

This is essentially a low-fi horror, and all the genre’s tropes are in evidence here. Spooky graveyard? Check. Family secret? Check. Wayward teenage girl possessed by an evil spirit? Check. Nazeer keeps things fresh by transposing the action to a different culture, seamlessly blending Arabic and English to give a clear sense of place. The setting is enhanced by special effects, which – though obviously constrained by budget – are serviceable enough, conveying a feeling of unease.

Akhtar delivers an impressive performance, imbuing Ayisa with a convincing mix of swagger and insecurity. The sound design (by Niroshini Thambar) is also excellent: the jinn’s voice truly seems to emanate from somewhere beyond the here and now.

I do have some quibbles: the script is a little uneven, for example, and there are jarring moments of humour that undermine the building tension, so that – ultimately – the stakes are never really raised. The recorded voices, though well-delivered, are over-used: all too often, I find myself listening to a block of exposition, while looking at a blank or static stage.

Nonetheless, Jinnistan is an entertaining piece of lunchtime theatre, and a fitting end to this round of PPP’s lunchtime offerings.

3 stars

Susan Singfield

South Pacific

26/10/22

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s classic musical, first performed in 1949, is revived here in a touring production from Chichester Festival Theatre, which is handsomely mounted and features a thirty-strong cast. Peter McIntosh’s impressive set designs are built around a revolving stage and utilise atmospheric back projection, while tables, chairs and other props appear to float magically downwards from the heavens.

We are on a tropical island during the Second World War, where American troops are stationed in preparation for the coming conflict with Japanese invaders. The Tonkinese people of the island have learned to fit in with – and even profit from – their American visitors. Bloody Mary (Joanna Ampil, whose ethereal voice is a highlight of the piece) now runs a flourishing trade in grass skirts, which the troops buy as souvenirs to send back to their families. Meanwhile, long-time resident and plantation owner, Emil de Beque (Julian Ovenden), has been romancing naïve young ensign, Nellie Forbush (Gina Beck), and impulsively proposes to her. She’s all for the idea of marriage – until she discovers that Emile has two children and that his deceased wife was Tonkinese – or ‘coloured’ as she puts it.

The audible gasps of discomfort from the audience at this point are a reminder that South Pacific is very much of its time. There’s been no attempt to adapt the piece for more contemporary audiences. Of course, the message is supposed to be anti-racist – the point is addressed in a song by Lt Joseph Cable (Rob Houchen), who points out that bigotry is handed down through the generations, learned rather than innate – but a contemporary lens might also look upon the exotic ceremonies carried out on the sacred island of Bali Hai as ‘othering’, and wonder why there’s no concern about the unequal relationship between the white plantation owner and his native servants.

Musically, this production has plenty to offer – there’s a fine live orchestra providing sumptuous backing to Divenden’s powerful, almost operatic voice. There are Liat (Sera Maehara)’s elegant dance moves; she seems, at times, to virtually float across the stage. Dougie McMeekin offers nicely-judged comic relief as wheeler-dealer, Luther Billis. And, of course there’s a whole clutch of classic songs, recognisable even to an audience who may not be familiar with the musical itself. The production’s most rousing moments are when the ensemble is belting out spirited pieces such as ‘There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,’ or ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.’

If South Pacific has shortcomings they lie in the script, which was originally adapted from a series of short stories by James A Michener. The plodding storyline sometimes feels disconcertingly pedestrian – and too often, we’re fobbed off by being told about something that’s happened offstage, rather than actually being shown it. The final ‘action’ set piece, built around a jungle skirmish, feels particularly sketchy, and the death of an important character is carelessly thrown away.

Still, there’s plenty to like here and judging by the exuberant cheers that greet the final curtain, there are many in tonight’s audience who are thrilled by this trip down memory lane.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Crocodile Rock

25/10/22

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Seventeen-year-old Stephen McPhail feels marooned in his tiny island hometown, Millport. Sure, the mainland is only a short ferry-hop across the water, but the distance seems insurmountable. Stephen’s faither owns a pub, and his maw a B&B, and he’s expected to follow them into the family businesses. But the blokey banter at the bar leaves Stephen tongue-tied and blushing, and he dreams of something more. It’s only when handsome newcomer Henry Thomas arrives that Stephen finally figures out why he doesn’t fit in: he’s gay. The realisation brings him little comfort: Henry not only rejects him, but also makes sure he’s ostracised by his peers. Because being gay in 1997 – especially in a small town, and even more especially when you’re still at school – is a long, long way from easy. Things only improve when the annual Country and Western festival rolls into town, and a keyboard-playing drag queen offers Stephen a way out…

Andy McGregor’s one-man (and a band) musical is a delight. The writing nails the open homophobia still so prevalent in the late 90s; I was a teacher then, and Clause 28 was crippling. Coming-out tales are far from rare, but this one soars: the songs are bold yet nuanced, and actor Stephen Arden really brings to life the young man’s loneliness and yearning. It’s always apparent that Stephen is a caterpillar, waiting to grow his wings, and – when he does – his exuberance is catching. There’s a real sense of celebration in the final act, and we leave smiling, sharing some of Stephen’s catharsis. Arden has an impressive vocal range, and the three-piece band (Kim Shepherd and Simon Donaldson, led by musical director Andy Manning) produce an impressively full sound. Arden acknowledges their presence, interacting with them occasionally, so that they are seamlessly integrated into the play.

The set (by Kenny Miller) is simple but very effective. A large photograph of Millport’s famous but – sorry – undeniably awful Crocodile Rock serves as a background, contrasting wonderfully with the sequinned glamour Stephen eventually embraces. The photo not only hides a sliding door, but also some hinged boards that open up to show us Stephen’s cartoon-themed bedroom, reminding us of just how young he is, poised on the cusp between boy and man.

Crocodile Rock is on tour. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve missed your chance in Edinburgh, but you can still catch it at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen on 4th November. It’s a real treat.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of)

20/10/22

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s a real treat to revisit writer/director Isobel McArthur’s rambunctious retelling of Jane Austen’s best-loved novel. Since we last saw it in January 2020, a lot has happened – and I’m not referring to the pandemic. Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) has wowed the West End and bagged itself a well-deserved Olivier award. McArthur must be buzzing.

This adaptation is actually pretty faithful to the original. The set-up is intact: we have the Bennett family facing financial ruin, and Mrs Bennett (McArthur) desperately trying to marry off her five daughters. And the central romance is intact too: we have sparky, reckless Lizzy (Leah Jamieson), determined to marry for love or not at all – consequences be damned – and we have Darcy (McArthur again). Her portrayal of the enigmatic, uptight ‘hero’ is as exquisite as I remember. She nails his inarticulacy, highlighting his inability to express himself, rendering him sympathetic, despite his brusque manner.

The difference lies in the telling. The conceit is that five servants are dressing up, playing, showing us what they’ve observed in the houses where they work. Thus class barriers are broken down, and so is the gap between the 19th century gentry and the theatre-goers of the 21st. McArthur’s talent lies in unveiling the jokes, so that Austen’s satire – hidden from a modern audience behind bonnets and mannered language – is exposed to the light. Via karaoke and biting sarcasm.

Hannah Jarrett-Scott almost steals the show: she’s a natural clown, clearly relishing the twin roles of Caroline and Charles Bingley, but also flashing her acting chops in a nuanced depiction of Charlotte Lucas, repressing her feelings for Lizzy. Christina Gordon (as Jane, Wickham and Lady Catherine) and Tori Burgess (as Lydia, Mary and Mr Collins) are both excellent too. I’ve nothing negative to say.

Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is at the Lyceum until November 5th, which seems appropriate for such a dazzling firecracker of a show.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Jack Absolute Flies Again

18/10/22

The Cameo, Edinburgh

Daytime cinema always feels like playing hooky. A sign that – for today – fun has priority. And NT Live screenings have the same ‘getting away with something’ vibe. I’m watching a play in London, but – shhh, whisper it – I haven’t left Edinburgh. So this afternoon’s indulgence, Jack Absolute Flies Again, is the double whammy: a National Theatre production at lunch time on a Tuesday! And in our favourite picture house too…

Based on Sheridan’s The Rivals, Richard Bean and Oliver Chris’s production exemplifies ‘rollicking’. It’s a silly, frothy, feelgood piece of theatre – and I absolutely love it.

The action has moved from the late 18th century to the early 20th – specifically to World War 2 – and Malaprop Mansion has been requisitioned by the RAF. The titular Jack (Laurie Davidson) is a pilot, stationed in the grounds. He’s in love with fellow pilot, Lydia Languish (Natalie Simpson), who just happens to live in the mansion with her aunt, Mrs Malaprop (Caroline Quentin). Lydia, however, is infatuated with northern mechanic, Dudley Scunthorpe (Kelvin Fletcher), who, in turn, has a thing for Lydia’s maid, Lucy (Kerry Howard). Throw in a couple of other pilots vying for Lydia’s attention, a jealous fiancé and the ever-present spectre of death (these are military people, after all), not to mention Mrs Malaprop’s attraction to Jack’s father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Peter Forbes), and you’ve got quite the heady mix…

This comedy of errors is beautifully handled, all knowing nods to the audience, and perfectly executed groan-out-loud jokes. Sure, we can see the punchlines coming from cruising height, but that’s the point: the laughs are garnered in the gap, the moment when we know what’s coming before it lands. Quentin is particularly funny, clearly relishing the Malapropisms that litter her speech. They are so plentiful they make Sheridan look positively restrained, but their abundance works, again prompting us to pre-empt what she might say (Chekhov’s clematis, if you will). Howard also proves to have that comic edge, and I like her character’s frequent references to the theatricality of the piece, reminding the audience of the genre and what they ought to expect.

The set is delightful: all bucolic beauty and architectural elegance. Its chocolate box design suits the tone of the piece, and I especially like the doll’s house effect, when the mansion opens to reveal the rooms within. Ironically, the only things that don’t translate well to the cinema are, well, the cinematic sequences. I’m sure they’re impactful in the vast Olivier auditorium, but they are diminished by the live-screening process.

The ending is something of a shock, deliberately jarring. I won’t go into any detail (no spoilers here), but – on reflection – I think it works. It’s a brave choice, but probably the only one that makes sense, given the context. It feels tonally different from the rest of the piece, but I guess that’s the point. We all plod along, don’t we, dealing with the minutiae while the big stuff happens around us. Until…

There are a few more ‘encore’ screenings of Jack Absolute over the next month or so. If you’re in need of a laugh, take advantage of NT Live and give your local cinema a much-needed boost at the same time. You won’t regret it.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield