Theatre

Theatre Bouquets 2018

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Another year, another plethora of exciting theatre. We’ve been moved, motivated and mesmerised by so much of what we’ve seen. And here, in order of viewing, are our favourites of 2018.

The Belle’s Stratagem – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

bellesstrat1

This production looked ravishing, the brightly-hued costumes blazing against the simple monochrome set. Fast, furious and frenetic, this was a real crowd-pleaser.

Rhinoceros – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

rhinocerous2.jpg

A truly glorious production, as witty and vivacious as it was prescient. There were some great comic turns, and the sensual, Middle Eastern-inflected music added to the mood of transformation.

Creditors – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

creditors-1.jpg

We thought we’d seen all we wanted of Strindberg, but Creditors made us think again. Because this production was a prime example of the director’s art: the realisation of a vision that illuminated and animated the playwright’s words, breathing new life into old ideas.

Sunshine on Leith – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

sunshine2.jpg

Sunshine On Leith was an absolute charmer. From the opening chords of the climactic I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), the entire audience was delightedly clapping hands and stamping feet with a force that seemed to shake the beautiful old theatre to its very foundations.

Home, I’m Darling – Theatr Clwyd, Yr Wyddgrug

home-im-darling-1.jpg

A clever play, with a lot to say. Katherine Parkinson starred as Judy, a woman obsessed with the 1950s. Through her brittle fetishisation of the past, the script laid bare the problem with rose-tinted reminiscence and looked at the present with an eye that matched Judy’s gimlet cocktail.

Not in Our Neighbourhood – Gilded Balloon, Rose Theatre, Edinburgh

kopae2.jpeg

This powerful and compelling production, written and directed by Jamie McCaskill, tackled the difficult subject of domestic abuse and featured an astonishing central performance from Kali Kopae. We saw some superb acting at the Fringe this year, but this was singularly impressive.

Six the Musical – Udderbelly, Edinburgh

six1.jpg

An inventive and exuberant pop-opera, which felt like the most exciting, vibrant history lesson ever. The band and actors powered effortlessly through a whole range of different musical styles, from straight pop to power ballad, from soul to Germanic disco. The songs featured witty lyrics which related the women’s experiences in modern day terms – and we’ve been obsessed with them ever since.

The Swell Mob – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

swell2.jpg

The most genuinely immersive theatrical experience we’ve ever been part of. We were free to wander the 1830s tap room, replete with a real bar, and mix with a whole host of extraordinary characters: a crooked American doctor, a fortune teller, a soldier, a card-player… The more we engaged, the more was revealed… Superb and truly innovative.

Macbeth – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

macbeth3.jpg

We were relieved and delighted that this touring production was so good. We knew that this interpretation of the play had been quite controversial, but it really worked for us. It captured the very essence of Macbeth and illuminated the themes and characters with great clarity.

The Unreturning – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

unreturning2.jpg

A tale about young men and the shattering effect that war can have on them, simultaneously a requiem for the past and a chilling warning for our potential future. The haunting prose was augmented by incredible physicality as the actors ran, leapt, clambered and whirled around the stage in a series of perfectly choreographed moves.

Beauty and the Beast – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

allanstewart.jpg

There’s panto – and then there’s panto at the King’s, where the ante is well and truly upped. Here, we were treated to an absolute master class in the form: there’s an art to making the precise look shambolic, the crafted seem accidental. And it was so funny – even the oldest, daftest jokes had us roaring with laughter.

Mouthpiece – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

neve-mcintoshlorn-mcdonald.jpg

Powered by searing performances from Neve Macintosh and Lorn MacDonald, Mouthpiece was, quite simply, an astonishing play. Kieran Hurley’s ingenious circular narrative eventually brought the two protagonists head-to-head in a brilliant fourth-wall breaking climax.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

 

 

Advertisements

Mouthpiece

 

06/12/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

When an author creates a character for a play, to whom does that character belong? The writer, yes? But what if the character is based on a living person – somebody who exists outside of the fiction? Does the author then have a responsibility to that person? And, if they change certain details of the character’s life, does that constitute a betrayal of trust?

It’s questions like this that permeate Kieran Hurley’s powerful and compelling play, Mouthpiece. As a creator of fiction myself, I find it particularly intriguing, though – judging by the intense silence in the Traverse Theatre on the evening I attend – I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

Libby (Neve McIntosh) is a struggling playwright, recently returned to her home city of Edinburgh. Once fêted as the ‘next big thing,’ she has lost her way in London and is back living with her mother, unsure of what to do next. Her unhappiness leads her up to Salisbury Crags, where, fuelled by liquor, she rashly decides to fling herself from the heights and be done with it. But she’s been observed by disaffected teenager, Declan (Lorn Macdonald), who pulls her back from the edge. Declan too is unhappy, angry with his brutish stepfather’s treatment of his mother and of the infant daughter that Declan dotes on. He has come up to the Crags to work on one of his surreal drawings, undisturbed. The last thing he needs is this kind of interruption.

Fascinated by the boy, Libby seeks him out the following day, asking if he’ll meet up with her again, ‘just to talk.’ Already, her writer’s instincts have kicked in and she is beginning to plan a new project, one in which Declan will figure prominently.

Powered by searing performances from Macintosh and Macdonald, and simply staged within a skewed rectangular frame (which seems to perfectly showcase the ‘head-movie’ evolving in Libby’s mind), Mouthpiece occasionally breaks aside from the action for Libby to deliver short lectures on how successful plays are put together – and we start to notice how the writer changes those elements of Declan’s life that don’t quite fit with her plans. Even the parts lifted directly from reality must be reshaped, restructured, the jagged edges smoothed. This is how fiction is created and, it’s clear, these observations have been arrived at through personal experience.

Hurley’s ingenious circular narrative eventually brings Libby and Declan head-to-head in a brilliant fourth-wall breaking climax. As Declan sneeringly observes, it’s ‘all really meta.’

And, you know what? It is. And it’s wonderful to behold.

By this point I am absolutely riveted by what’s unfolding in front of me, barely daring to draw breath, in case I miss a word. Hurley has created something very special here, something that deserves to reach the widest possible audience.

It’s quite simply one of the best new plays I’ve seen in quite a while. Should you go and see it? Yes, I really think you should.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

McGonnagall’s Chronicles (which will be remembered for a very long time)

06/12/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The McGonagall of the title is, of course, William Topaz McGonnagall, the infamous ‘Bard of Dundee,’ widely celebrated as the worst poet of all time. A weaver by trade and a jobbing actor for a short while, McGonnagall embarked on his writing career in 1877, inspired by a ‘heavenly visitation’ and, by the time of his death in 1902, had left a legacy of over 250 (admittedly dreadful) self-published poems. In his declining years, he was treated with scant respect by the citizens of Dundee, where he was reduced to appearing in a circus tent, reading his poems aloud while members of the public pelted him with ripe fruit and rotten eggs.

As the name suggests, this show, written and performed by Gary McNair, with musical accompaniment from James O’ Sullivan and Simon Liddell, offers us a chronological history of the great man’s life from birth to demise. Fittingly enough, the play is delivered entirely in verse and McNair gleefully takes every opportunity to make his recitation appear as clunky and wince-inducing as the work of the great man himself.

It’s in the final third where the major surprises come. I’ve been fully expecting to laugh at McGonnagall’s exploits, but am quite unprepared for the overpowering tragedy of his hard-knock life. What comes across most strongly is the man’s indomitable self-belief: his determination to struggle on in the face of overwhelming ridicule. It probably boils down to yet another poorly-educated working-class man desperately trying to better himself, while the toffs around him look on and snigger.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

McNair has his own cross to bear during this afternoon’s performance, when a gentleman in the front row leaps suddenly to his feet and scuttles out of the nearest exit. McNair, interrupted mid-verse, has his concentration well and truly shattered, but deals with the interruption playfully (and in rhyme!) before regaining his momentum.

This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking romp through one of history’s most peculiar stories, and it’s a show well worth seeking out. As for McGonnagall himself, well, he has the last laugh. Hundreds of years after his death, his poems are still widely available in print, which is more than can be said for many of his contemporaries. As McNair and his musicians take their well-earned bows, I’m half convinced I can hear the sound of triumphant cackling from somewhere high above the audience… but, hey, maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about that sub-title, look up the Bard’s masterwork, The Tay Bridge Disaster and all will be explained.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Beauty and the Beast

 

05/12/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I’ve long been fascinated by pantomime. Accounting for 45% of all theatre tickets sold in the UK, its popularity is clear. But why? It’s an odd beast – cobbled together from Commedia dell Arte, music hall, drag, variety and pop – but it holds a very special place in the British public’s hearts.

I’ll nail my colours to the mast and state: I love it. I love the juxtapositions, the silliness, the stock phrases and characters, the magnification of everything blaring at us from the stage. I love ramshackle amateur and kids’ productions, and provincial professionals with ex-soap stars in the lead.

I love the nostalgia it evokes even as it embraces the zeitgeist.

But most of all I love this: the King’s Theatre’s panto-plus, where the ante is well and truly upped. Here, in the hands of director Ed Curtis and actors Allan Stewart and Grant Stott (Andy Gray, the third member of the triumvirate, is absent due to illness this year, but plans to return in 2019; get well soon, Andy!), we are treated to an absolute master class in the form: there’s an art to making the precise look shambolic, the crafted seem accidental. And it’s so funny – even the oldest, daftest jokes have me roaring with laughter; it’s all in the delivery.

Much of the wow factor here is in the tech: the designers achieve wonders. This contrast between the traditional painted cartoon-village flats and the state-of-the-art pyrotechnics is at the heart of what makes panto work, I think: the comfort of the familiar jarring with the pizzaz of the new. Ingenious lighting (by Matt Clutterham) hides the mechanics and makes the whole thing magical. Did I mention I love this? I do. It’s awesome. Really, it is.

The supporting cast all do a sterling job, but there’s no doubt this show is a vehicle for Stewart’s Dame (Auntie May) and Stott’s villain (Flash Boaby). Special mention also to Jacqueline Hughes as the Enchantress, whose singing voice is truly a lovely thing.

There’s panto – and then there’s panto at the King’s. Don’t miss it. It’s a real treat.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Wendy & Peter Pan

30/11/18

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The story of Peter Pan is a perennial Christmas favourite for family audiences. This clever reworking by Ella Hickson, created for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013, is adapted not from JM Barrie’s original play, but from from the extended version he published as a novel in 1911.

As you might deduce from the rearranged title, this is an altogether more feminist version of the story. Instead of being a helpless victim throughout the action, Wendy (Isobel McArthur) is clearly one for taking the initiative and, as it turns out, she’s also a dab hand with a cutlass. She first meets Peter (Ziggy Heath) shortly after the death of her brother, Tom (Keiran Gallagher); a year later, her parents, still unable to regain their equilibrium, appear to be drifting apart. Then Tom reappears and takes Wendy and her two other brothers, John (George Naylor) and Michael (Christian Ortega), off to join the Lost Boys in Neverland…

This rumbustious, sprawling adventure seems to delight in subverting audience expectations. Hook (Gyruri Sarossy) is not the usual sneering fop, but an oafish yob who’s beginning to feel the inexorable advance of old age. His bosun, Smee (Dorian Simpson), is a pernickety, snarky sort of fellow, who also throws a few good dance moves when he’s in the mood. Tink (Sally Reid) is a punky Glaswegian in dark glasses and sparkly leggings who is well versed in caustic remarks. There are sword fights aplenty (one of which I fear goes on a tad too long), a spectacular pirate ship set and, of course, there’s quite a bit of flying, though sometimes this feels a little too careful to be truly magical. I expect that will develop as the performers become more confident with the ropes and harnesses.

Needless to say, the younger members of the audience (at whom this is mostly aimed) have a great time with this, although one little chap in front of us does seem a bit overwhelmed by an unexpected visit from a very large and hungry crocodile; and there’s enough depth here for the big kids in the audience not to feel left out. The most interesting idea is an allegory about bereavement and the need for people to move on with their lives. Perhaps, Hickson seems to be saying, Neverland is something more than just a place for aimless kids to hang out.

At any rate, those with restless youngsters seeking entertainment could do a lot worse than head down to the Lyceum for their yuletide fix. This is sprightly stuff that should keep the whole family thoroughly entertained.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Producers

 

29/11/18

Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to imagine the kind of outrage that must have been generated by Mel Brooks’ The Producers on it’s original release in 1967, when it’s tap-dancing Nazi stormtroopers and flamboyantly gay directors must have touched a whole bunch of raw nerves. Adapted as a musical by Brooks and Thomas Meehan in the early naughties, it’s one of those rare creatures, a brilliant film, that became an excellent musical, that became a superb musical film. The Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group have some very big jackboots to fill here, but I’m happy to say that they rise to that daunting undertaking with their usual brio.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, this is the tale of struggling theatre impresario, Max Bialystock (Max McLaughlin) and shy, nervy accountant Leo Bloom (Rob Merriam). The two men form an unlikely alliance when Bloom casually points out that a producer might easily take a bigger profit from a disastrous flop than from a major success, provided the account ledgers are suitably cooked. With this in mind, Bialystock sets about procuring two million dollars to fund a new musical by seducing every elderly lady in his little black book – and, once they have the budget, Bialystock and Bloom go in search of the worst show ever written, plus the worst actors to perform it. Pretty soon, they settle on a little piece promisingly entitled Springtime for Hitler

This is unashamedly a creation of its era and happily, there’s been no attempt to soften the outrageous content to suit more modern sensibilities. The cast play it exactly as written, which leads to the only false note, when Bloom insults Bialystok by calling him ‘Fatty,’ (something that worked well enough for Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane, but is simply puzzling when applied to the lithe figure of McLaughlin). But that’s a minor niggle in what is, otherwise, a very satisfying production.

McLaughlin and Merriam make an appealing duo, while Georgie Rogers plays Swedish wannabe Ulla with the volume turned up to 11 and Will Peppercorn is a suitably deranged Franz Liebkind, a man who thinks nothing of wearing a German steel helmet and a swastika as leisurewear. Supporting actors make the most of their smaller roles (I particularly like Gordon Stackhouse’s turn as Carmen Ghia, a performance so archly camp that every gesture manages to evoke a belly laugh). But this musical is, of course, the very definition of an ensemble piece with twenty-two actors confidently moving around the small stage, singing and dancing up an absolute storm, even when incorporating their zimmer frames. And let’s not forget, there’s a seventeen piece band in this show, conducted by Caitlin Morgan, who deliver an assured musical accompaniment throughout.

Yes, this is a student show and of course, they don’t have the budget for fancy effects and state-of-the-art scenery, but when it comes to talent, The Producers is positively bursting with the stuff. If you like the original film, you’ll love this and you’re certain to come out, like me, with a great big smile on your face.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Nativity! the Musical

28/11/18

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s that time of year when families go looking for a heartwarming slice of entertainment, something that will be suitable for kids, parents and grandparents alike. There’s always panto, of course, but not everyone enjoys that kind of thing… (Oh yes they do! Oh no they don’t! Sorry.)

That’s when Nativity! the Musical may be just what Santa ordered. After all, what could be more Christmassy than a school nativity play? This of course, started life in 2009 as a successful film starring Martin Freeman. There have been further spin-offs, with the latest landing any day now. The first movie was adapted into a stage musical in 2017 by original author, Debbie Isitt.

This is the story of Mr Maddens (Scott Garnham), former wannabe actor turned primary school teacher, and his rivalry with his one-time best friend, Mr Shakespeare (Andy Brady), who teaches drama at a much more upmarket private school. After the love of his life, Jennifer (Ashleigh Grey), runs off to Hollywood to pursue her dream of being a film producer, his first attempt at a school Nativity receives a drubbing at the hands of a local theatre critic (played here by Jo Brand), and Mr Maddens swears never to direct again – but then along comes supply teacher, arrested adolescent Mr Poppy (Simon Lipkin), who is simply itching to bring his talents to this year’s production – and when Mr Maddens is overheard boasting that he can arrange to bring a ‘film producer friend from Hollywood’ to watch the show, things get a little out of hand…

Despite some worrying implications in the script – I’m sure primary school teachers in the audience aren’t delighted to hear that their chosen vocation is only suitable for those who have failed at loftier ambitions – this is nonetheless guaranteed to win over all but the sternest of critics, mostly by virtue of its irrepressible sense of fun. Lipkin is quite fabulous as Mr Poppy, his seemingly improvised asides earning big laughs from viewers of all ages – but best of all are his interactions with the younger members of the cast, aged from 9 to 12 years, who work their socks off up on the stage and somehow manage to steer a path clear of any saccharine. Twelve of them are local kids, specially recruited for this production and it’s a genuine delight to watch them strutting their stuff so effectively.

I’m usually a bit of a Scrooge about this kind of show, but I have to admit that Nativity! the Musical quickly wins me over. The slick scene changes, the clapalong songs and the general air of exuberance from everyone concerned soon manage to get me onside, which, given my usual levels of Yule-related grumpiness, is no mean feat. There are even a couple of moments where I feel my eyes brimming with something suspiciously like tears. By the end, I am on my feet and applauding as enthusiastically as everyone else.

Those looking for a festive fun night out should look no further than this. It’s a Christmas cracker.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney