Theatre

Cockpit

10/10/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

If you want to see the Lyceum in a completely different light, then now is the time to do so, as the whole place has been transformed for a timely production of Bridget Boland’s Cockpit, a challenging political piece set in the aftermath of World War Two.

It’s hard to make truly immersive theatre in a Victorian proscenium arch, but the design here is radical. There is raked seating on the stage, facing the auditorium, making the performance space effectively traverse. There are suitcases spilling their guts onto random seats; ladders leading up to (and down from) the boxes; the gantry is exposed. Even the trap-room is utilised. And yet, despite being rendered almost unrecognisable, the theatre building is also given a central role in this production, which is – cleverly – site-specific. For we are all (actors and audience) cast as displaced people (DPs), released from prisons and concentration camps across Germany but not yet able to celebrate our liberation. Instead we are cooped up in a provincial German theatre, which has been requisitioned by the British Army to serve as a holding pen before we are repatriated.

There’s a strong reminder here of the complexity of war: the common enemy may have been defeated but there are other grievances just as entrenched, which may never be resolved. This exploration of European history and relations seems especially prescient, as – outside the theatre – we try to navigate the choppy waters of Brexit. Divisions within our own country are deep and rancorous; our relationships with others have yet to be determined. Cockpit feels as though it could have been written last week, although in fact it was penned in 1948. These are interesting times in which to consider the notions of idealism versus pragmatism, hope versus despair.

Cockpit  is a witty, clever play. Forcing people of different nationalities and political persuasions to co-exist in a confined space allows the arguments put forward to appear spontaneous and natural, while the plot device of a suspected plague outbreak ensures we also see the characters’ common humanity, as they put aside their differences to focus on survival. The enormity of the task faced by Captain Ridley (Peter Hannah) is made very clear. A workable exit strategy seems nigh on impossible, as tensions rise between the various factions, and no one is prepared to compromise.

There is comedy here too: Dylan Read (who also plays French farmer Duval) excels as Bauer, the uptight stage manager, who prizes saving his beloved building above all else. His pomposity is funny: he fusses over petty details, takes great delight in providing props, bristles at the suggestion he might be ‘front of house.’ Through him, Boland also explores the redemptive power of theatre, a thread which culminates in an awe-inspiring performance from La Traviata by singer Sandra Kassman. Bauer might seem ridiculous, but preserving art and culture is important, we are shown.

Director Wils Wilson has served up a fascinating piece of theatre, which, if not exactly enjoyable, is nevertheless arresting and thought-provoking. It’s provocative and demanding; it’s not an easy piece to watch. But it’s certainly worth the effort, and will have you thinking long after the curtain falls.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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The Kite Runner

09/10/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, set against the changing face of Afghanistan through the nineteen-seventies and beyond, gets an assured if slightly pedestrian adaptation by Matthew Spengler, who opts to use the same first person narration as the book. It’s a powerful and deeply affecting story about friendship and rivalry and how the events of childhood serve to shape the adult psyche.

David Ahmad takes the central role of Amir – and it must be a punishing performance, as he is involved in every single scene. This is the story of young Amir who lives with his father Baba (Emilio Doorgasingh) in a fine house in Afghanistan. It is also the story of the two servants who live and work in the household, Ali (Ezra Foroque Khan) and his son, Hassan (Jo Ben Ayed). Amir and Hassan are friends who play together every day, unmindful of the fact that they are on opposite sides of the Sunni/Shia divide. When the Taliban take control of the country, that divide causes incredible tensions – and when Amir witnesses an act of barbaric cruelty enacted on Hassan by some Sunni boys, he chooses to look the other way… something that in the fullness of time, he comes to bitterly regret.

The play is simply and effectively staged. I love the device of the giant kite-shaped screen that descends from time to time with images projected onto it and shadows swarming behind it. The scene where it is used to mask the story’s most heinous moment is a brilliant piece of theatre – making the event infinitely more horrible, simply because we do not see it. The imagination always paints the most terrible pictures.

I also love the presence of tabla player Hanif Khan on stage, his urgent rhythms serving to propel the story along at key moments. If some scenes occasionally feel a little exposition-heavy, this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of the narrative – but those who love the novel (and they are many) will surely appreciate how much care and attention has gone into adapting this for the stage.

The rapturous applause at the play’s conclusion is ample evidence of how much the audience in the packed auditorium enjoy this performance.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Sunshine Ghost

07/10/17

The Studio, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The Sunshine Ghost, a co-production between Scottish Theatre Producers and the Festival and King’s Theatres in Edinburgh, is a brand-spanking new musical, performed with wit and vigour by its small cast.

Directed by Ken Alexander, it’s a convoluted, melodramatic tale, featuring love and loss, castles and ghosts – with lots of laughs along the way. We meet the cursed ghost Ranald MacKinnon (John Kielty), two hundred years dead, and doomed to haunt his family’s castle until an old wrong is avenged. And we meet the woman he falls in love with, the very-much-alive American archaeologist, Jacqueline Duval (Neshla Caplan), daughter of billionaire property tycoon, Glen Duval (Barrie Hunter). Before Jacqueline can stop him, her boorish father is buying MacKinnon Castle and shipping it stone-by-stone to the USA, all to curry favour with his latest amour, the repulsive media-astrologer, Astrobeth (played with real relish by Helen Logan). Can Ranald save his ancestral home and break the curse that binds him to it? Can the hapless caretaker, Lachlan (Andy Cannon, who co-wrote the play), do anything to help? Here, nothing is as it seems, and the resolution, when it comes, is sure to take you by surprise.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of musical theatre, hindered only by a peponderance of exposition in the first act, and the inevitable limitations of a single piano (masterfully played by Richard Ferguson, who also wrote the score, but without the depth of a full band or orchestra). It’s a silly spoof, a daft extravagance, and the cast play up these elements with obvious glee. There are lots of cheeky little techniques employed with a knowing wink: a sheet cunningly moved to allow a shock reveal; a homage to Beetlejuice in the possession scene. Helen Logan’s Astrobeth is the standout performance (it’s a gift of a role, perfect for comic exaggeration), but the whole cast works well, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

A most enjoyable evening at the theatre.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

A Streetcar Named Desire

03/10/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Rapture Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire is as intense and uncomfortable as it should be, with a towering central performance by Gina Isaac as Blanche DuBois, who absolutely captures the oxymoronic tigress/moth nature of Tennessee Williams’ most complex anti-heroine.

The story is well-known: Blanche visits her sister and brother-in-law, Stella and Stanley, in New Orleans, where she soon overstays her welcome, drinking their liquor and sneering at their two-room home. However, despite her airs and graces, it transpires that Blanche has nowhere else to go: the plantation her family owned is gone; there is no money left and she’s lost her teaching job. She’s a tragic creature, as desperate as she is beautiful, as damaged as she is damaging. She clings to the old order, where she had youth and status and respect; she can’t accept that it is gone.

The casting of a black actor (Joseph Black) as Stanley Kowalski adds the suggestion that Blanche’s snobbery is tinged with racism: her descriptions of him as an ‘animal’ or an ‘ape’ mirror the racist language deployed by white supremacists. She feels instinctively superior to him, and is condescending even as she relies on him for the very basics of her existence. Under Michael Emans’ direction, the claustrophobia of their lives is central, emphasised by the small set, which squats at the front of the large stage space. There may well be a world out there, but the characters in this play aren’t able to enjoy it. They’re all trapped, bound together in their misery; it’s a crackling tinderbox.

And when it catches, the fire destroys everything. Stanley rapes Blanche and it’s brutal: Isaac’s depiction of drunken vulnerability makes the moment stark and clear. There is no way this woman is capable of consent. Whatever humiliations she has heaped upon Stanley, in this moment, he is entirely at fault. It’s horrible to watch and it’s very powerful indeed.

I’m not sure about the music, which I think is supposed to be inside Blanche’s head, played at a volume where I can just about catch it. I’m guessing this is the point, but I find it distracting and not a little irritating at times. Still, this is a strong production, which does real justice to Williams’ play, and never shirks from the complexity of the characters portrayed.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Monty Python’s Spamalot

 

26/09/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

‘Your father is a hamster and your mother smells of elderberries!’

With dialogue like that,  it can only be Monty Python’s Spamalot, the show that creator Eric Idle claims was ‘lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Since it opened on Broadway in 2005, this musical has played all over the world with a whole string of actors in the central role of King Arthur.

Tonight, in Edinburgh, Arthur is played by Bob Harms and his grubby assistant, Patsy, by Rhys Owen. From the moment they enter on horseback (or rather, on foot, accompanied by the sound of coconut shells) the audience is laughing helplessly, a state they remain in throughout the show. Lovers of Python – and they are many – will have a field day with this, because it features plenty of scenes from the film, together with songs specially composed for the musical (The Song That Goes Like This, which parodies the Andrew Lloyd Webber school of composition, is a particular standout) and, of course, since it’s simply too good to leave out, we are also treated to a version of Always Look On The Bright Side of Life from The Life of Brian, which has us all whistling happily along.

I won’t pretend this is anything more than a piece of fluff but, my goodness, what beautifully presented fluff! The production values here are spot on. Sarah Harlington as The Lady of the Lake submits some astonishing vocals and the various members of the chorus leap and pirouette around the stage for all they are worth. There’s also a fabulous moment where the fourth wall is well and truly broken. It would be a crime to reveal what actually happens but suffice to say one unsuspecting member of the audience is in for a real treat.

Was I entertained? Yes, massively. Could I tell you what the story is actually about? Well, no, but that’s kind of the point. Python always was a celebration of the ridiculous and Spamalot doesn’t change the formula all that much – so of course there are mystical knights desperately in search of a shrubbery. Of course there are interruptions from the voice of God (John Cleese). And of course there’s a killer rabbit – come on, it doesn’t get much better than a killer rabbit!

If you’re feeling a bit down or in need of a tonic, this show could be exactly what you are looking for. I came out with a great big grin on my face. Chances are, you will too.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Twelfth Night

21/09/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Following Philip’s enthusiastic review of their Romeo & Juliet last night, I’m primed to expect good things from Merely Theatre, with their gender-blind double casting and sprightly interpretations of the Bard. And I’m not disappointed: Twelfth Night is an absolute delight, and an interesting counterpoint to the star-crossed lovers’ tragedy. To those who claim Shakespeare’s comedies just aren’t funny (Sir Richard Eyre, amongst others), I say: watch this. It’s hilarious. Even the too-cool-for-school teenage girls sitting in front of me – with their teacher and ‘response to live performance’ booklets – can’t help but laugh after a while. I mean, they give eye-rolling indifference a decent go, but it proves impossible in the face of Tamara Astor’s foolish musical antics (she’s playing the fool – conflated with Maria – so it all makes perfect sense).

The plot’s too well-known for me to detail it here, and – to some extent – this production relies on that familiarity. I’m never in any doubt as to who is who, but I might be, if I didn’t know the play. Hannah Ellis, for example, plays the drunken sot, Sir Toby Belch, as well as Orsino, but the only difference in costume is the addition of a tweed jacket and a bow-tie to denote Olivia’s wayward uncle, and – although Ellis plays them very differently – I think there’s a danger the Duke might appear to be the same man, albeit sobered up. Still, her performance is undoubtedly excellent, as is Robert Myles’ turn as the unfortunate Malvolio, not so much cross-gartered as high-Y-fronted, and stupidly amusing. Sarah Peachey and Emmy Rose deliver the ‘straight-man’ roles of Olivia and Viola with aplomb; there’s not a single weak link here.

It’s a lively, pacy piece of theatre: deliciously daft, revelling in its silliness. Scott Ellis’s direction is sublime: this show is fast and funny and entertaining all the time. The simple set works extremely well: there’re no unnecessary props or scenery to slow things down. This is seriously good comedy. Do try to catch it if you can.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Romeo & Juliet

 

 

20/09/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Merely Theatre have a pretty unique approach to staging what they call ‘stripped-back’ Shakespeare. Each play they produce features only five actors and the casting is gender-blind. On this tour, for instance, they are performing Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night in rep – so the version of R & J I see features four female actors and one male. It all makes for an interesting dynamic and prompts the viewer to examine really familiar scenes with a fresh eye.

I won’t insult readers by outlining the full plot of R & J – only to observe that a play that so many people think of as the ultimate love story is, in fact, pure tragedy – the tale of a flighty, impetuous youth who becomes infatuated with somebody he’s only just met and, in wooing her, unwittingly leaves a trail of devastation in his wake. Some love story! For once, the two lead characters here are young enough to convince us that they could be so impetuous and the pared-down nature of this production means that it moves like the proverbial tiger on vaseline, with characters dashing back and forth through a series of curtained doorways, slipping in and out of costume as they go.

With so few actors to carry so many roles, the danger is always that an audience won’t be entirely sure who is who, but the simple costume changes (where, for instance, the Capulets are always decked out in Bay City Roller-style flourishes of tartan) means that we’re never confused. Almost before I know it, we’ve hit the interval and, after a short break, the second half fairly scampers by. Sarah Peachey and Emmy Rose make appealing star-crossed lovers and I particularly enjoy Tamara Astor’s performance as the Nurse. Hannah Ellis deftly handles three roles, while Robert Myles manages four.

If you’re trying to encourage reluctant youngsters to embrace a bit of the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, this is a great way to start them off. It’s pacy and exuberant but doesn’t pull any punches when dealing with the tragedy.

All-in-all, a very satisfying production.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney