Theatre

Hope and Joy

01/11/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ellie Stewart’s Hope and Joy is a quirky, absurdist piece of whimsy, set in a near future where environmental change has wrought a radical shift in nature. A shift so radical, in fact, that the opening scene shows Hope (Kim Gerard) giving birth to an egg. The father is a Whooper swan, we learn, and her son, Magnus (Ryan Havelin), a human-swan hybrid – costumed, delightfully, in a fabulous winged hoody. Hospital cleaner Joy (Beth Marshall) sees the boy’s ability to fly as a definite plus-point, but – as he grows up – the kids at school are less accepting of his differences. Hanging out with a gang of dissolute pigeons only makes things worse, and Magnus soon realises he needs to spread his wings (sorry…), and seek the company of others who are more like him.

It’s a fun play with some serious points underlying the humour, such as the letter Joy receives regarding her mum’s social care. The melting ice caps are, of course, a real cause for concern, and this fantastical imagining of where we might end up serves to highlight how unknown and precarious our planet’s future is. Themes of friendship, parenthood, otherness and isolation are also clear throughout, although rather superficially explored.

Becky Minto’s set is as wonderful as you might expect if you’ve seen her work before: a jagged white hospital bed/house/pole -dancing stage surrounded by stark black tree trunks. Caitlin Skinner’s direction is lively and dynamic, and – for the most part – works in harmony with the set, although I’m not convinced by the actors crouching off-stage, half-hidden in the woods; I think they need to be either properly concealed or more explicitly visible.

The performances are strong: Gerard and Marshall inhabit their roles effectively, creating bold, sympathetic characters, and Havelin is engagingly awkward as the diffident teenage bird-boy. The section in the pole-dancing club is less believable however: it’s an interesting twist, but the posing and spinning need to be more carefully choreographed, and delivered with more precision and control if they’re to be convincing.

Hope and Joy is throughly entertaining and an absolute pleasure to watch: an enjoyable way to spend an hour.

3.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Fibres

29/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Fibres is Frances Poet’s ‘heath and safety’ play, an emotive response to her discovery that an acquaintance had lost both parents, six months apart, due to asbestos poisoning. Poet’s perception of asbestos as ‘something dangerous from the past’ was exposed as a fallacy; subsequently, she learned that more people die of asbestos-related illnesses each year than die in traffic accidents, that the NHS will be footing the bill for corporate greed/negligence until 2040. Mesothelioma takes between twenty and fifty years to develop, and even brief exposure is enough to kill.

Indeed, the brevity of exposure is a key feature of this play. Jack (Jonathan Watson) only works as a shipbuilder for a few days; he’s nervous about the asbestos dust he’s been warned about, so takes a pay cut and becomes an electrician. He thinks he’s dodged a bullet. His wife, Beanie (Maureen Carr), washes his overalls, a simple domestic act fraught with symbolism, as the fibres enter her lungs too.

As you might expect from Poet, there are many layers to be unravelled here; it’s not a simple polemic. There are parallels drawn between the asbestos fibres and the impact of traditional gender roles on a relationship: a slow, invisible poisoning.

Despite the subject matter, it’s not all doom and gloom. Jack and Beanie are a believable couple, muddling through as best they can. They’re facing the horror with fortitude and humour: Jack loves a bit of comedy, and has a catalogue of cringey jokes. Their daughter, Lucy (Suzanne Magowan), is struggling, but her breakdown is shown through a series of bleakly humorous, hide-your-eyes-behind-your-hands-while-your-toes-curl moments.

Breaches in health and safety protocol are given a human face, in the form of Lucy’s boss, Pete (Ali Craig). They work for a fibre optics company, and he’s up against it, trying to meet the demands of a contract while allowing his workers their requisite study days and sick leave. He’s fed up with the union rep’s ‘unreasonable’ demands, preventing him from getting the job done. We’re shown how it happens, how decent people can be pressured into repeating old mistakes. But Pete is given a chance to learn: his fondness for Lucy redeems him.

If this all sounds a bit po-faced, don’t be misled. This plays as a cleverly written domestic tragedy, with a window onto larger political issues. The actors switch between narration and performance; the set (by Jen McGinley) is a fluid, symbolic space, where the characters flit between life and death, the past and the present, dark humour and even darker anger. Jemima Levick’s assured direction ensures that there is no confusion: we always know where and when events are taking place, the pace allowing us time to digest what’s happening.

Fibres is a vital, heartbreaking play with an important message at its core.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Prism

28/10/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Jack is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. As he increasingly slips into a fog of forgetfulness, his son Mason attempts to get him to write his autobiography before he forgets everything. He fills the garage with photographs and pieces of equipment salvaged from his father’s long career, hoping they’ll provide inspiration. But, inevitably, the artefacts send Jack’s consciousness careering back to experiences from his past.

Jack (Robert Lindsay) is the near-legendary cinematographer, Jack Cardiff. (If the name is unfamiliar, think Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes, to name but three.) Mason (Oliver Hembrough) is a camera operator, determined to keep his father productive, while Jack’s wife, Nikki (Tara Fitzgerald) is just trying to come to terms with the fact that her husband keeps mistaking her for Katherine Hepburn, with whom he once had a serious dalliance. Into this troubled household comes Lucy (Victoria Blunt),  charged with the tricky task of helping Jack to write that autobiography – no easy matter for somebody who professes to hate ‘old films.’

Lindsay offers a nicely nuanced performance as Cardiff, finding the humour in the man’s situation (and yes, there is humour there) as well as the poignancy, when somebody whose career has been entirely composed around his ability to capture the magical qualities of light increasingly finds himself slipping further and further into the darkness.

The video designs of Ian William Galloway, where old photographs blossom magically into motion, help to convey the idea of his cinematic history and there’s a gorgeous flashback to 1951 and the set of The African Queen, where Fitzgerald does a fabulous turn as Katherine Hepburn. Blunt also manages to transform herself from a no-nonsense Yorkshire lass to a pretty convincing Marilyn Monroe. A sequence where an earlier scene is replayed word-for-word, but seen from Jack’s deluded perspective, adds a delicious twist to the proceedings.

You don’t have to be a film buff to enjoy this, by the way. Cardiff’s plight is one shared by so many people and his story serves to accentuate the horror and tragedy of this all too common malady.

But his shattered genius somehow lends the story an extra shot of melancholy.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Thick Skin, Elastic Heart

26/10/10

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Thick Skin, Elastic Heart is billed as ‘a hybrid poetry/drama production’ and I’ll admit, based on that description, my expectations are not particularly high. Let’s just say, I’ve been somewhat underwhelmed by such shows in the past. You know the kind of thing. Short pieces of poetry, thoughtful silences, and smatterings of polite applause…

And when I learn that the theme of the show is ‘millennials,’ I’m not exactly overjoyed. I seem to have heard people banging on about that subject a lot recently…

Which only goes to show how wrong you (I) can be.

Touring company Sonnet Youth make a point of showcasing some local talent at every performance so tonight we open with a selection from young poet, Catherine Wilson, who delivers a series of wry, amusing, observational pieces that range from the sweet and poignant, to the downright hilarious. Wilson is a confident, engaging performer and this gets eveything off to a strong start.

And it only gets better.

The pieces that follow, all written by Drew Taylor-Wilson, offer observations on the complexity of modern life: the awful paranoia of job interviews, the tribulations of sexual relationships, a deeply affecting piece about miscarriage… this runs the gamut of the emotions, each successive piece contrasting with the last, so there’s never a sense of repetition – unless it’s deliberate. The show is performed with considerable alomb by Charlotte Driesler, Robert Elkin, Danielle Jam and Cameron Fulton. And it’s not just a series of poems delivered one after the other. Lucy Wild’s choreography has the four performers moving effortlessly around the stage, sometimes delivering monologues, often speaking in unison, augmenting each section with simple costume changes and skilful interaction. To say that I’m spellbound would perhaps be an understatement.

I’ve rarely seen this kind of thing done so well and it exerts a powerful grip on my attention from start to finish. The applause at the end is anything but polite.

After just two nights at The Traverse, the show is moving on for a series of one-off engagements across Scotland. If this should happen to land anywhere near you, do yourself an immense favour and grab a ticket.

I’m confident you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

4. 4 stars

Philip Caveney

Barber Shop Chronicles

24/10/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

There’s a different vibe in the Lyceum tonight: a youthful, energetic atmosphere. We take our seats fifteen minutes early, but the party’s already in full swing, with audience members invited up on to the stage, where the twelve-strong cast are dancing, chatting and miming cutting people’s hair. A couple of teenagers from the front row run up the steps self-consciously; within seconds they’re in barbers’ chairs, laughing with the actors standing behind them. A middle-aged man tries in vain to copy some dance moves; he’s having a great time. An actor wanders through the auditorium, shaking hands, making daft jokes. This immersive opening has a clear message: Barber Shop Chronicles is an inclusive piece of theatre, and we’re meant to be more involved than mere observers.

Inua Ellams’ play was first performed two years ago at the National Theatre (who co-produced it with Fuel and Leeds Playhouse). Since then, it’s been on tour, and its success is well-deserved. An intimate piece that spans six countries; a politically-charged play that doesn’t proselytise; a comedy that brings its audience to tears: Barber Shop Chronicles is nothing if not original.

The conceit is simple: a barber is not just a man who cuts his clients’ hair. He is also a counsellor, his shop is a confessional. And, if this is true, if men really do open up to their barbers, then what can we glean if we listen in? London-based Ellams’ research took him to South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Ghana, and he returned with sixty hours of recordings on which he based his play. The authenticity of the voices rings true throughout, exploring the experiences of black men in Africa and the UK. We flit between time zones and hairdressers, the clocks whizzing round at double speed to take us between continents. In each shop, they’re watching the same football match (Chelsea vs Barcelona), each disparate group united by their interest in the sport.

There’s a lot to take in; under Bijan Sheibani’s direction, everything happens at breakneck speed. I like this: sure, there’s not always time to absorb one idea before another comes along, but the overlapping stories and fragments of ideology feel wonderfully realistic, adding to the impression that we’re listening in to what real people have to say.

The performances are exuberant for the most part, but quiet and heartfelt when required. This is true ensemble work, with a real sense of a team creating something together. The scene transitions are fascinating, the choreography both lively and precise.

The best thing, though, is the wide-ranging conversation, encompassing little-heard persepctives on everything from Nigerian Pidgin to Mugabe, from high performance cars to fatherhood. It’s densely packed – and never dull.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

The Monstrous Heart

23/10/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Oliver Emanuel’s The Monstrous Heart takes place in a remote log cabin in the wilds of Canada, where Beth (Charlene Boyd), recently released from a long prison stretch in England, reconnects with her mother, Mag (Christine Entwhistle). It’s clear from the outset that this is not going to be a warm family reunion. The two women have unfinished business, business that relates to the little girl in the next room – and the threat of physical violence hangs heavy in the air.

There’s another protagonist in this story in the (very realistic) form of a dead grizzly bear, stretched out on the kitchen table, where it’s in the process of being stuffed by Mag, who, after an alcoholic past, has somehow rebuilt her life and now works as a respected taxidermist. The bear is a great big metaphor and its massive frame dominates the set, in some cases (perhaps deliberately?) blocking the sight-lines for some of the story’s action. Director Gareth Nicholls does his best to orchestrate the ensuing antics and, to give the actors their due, they subit powerful performances here. Boyd offers a devilish, gleefully nihilistic Beth, while Entwhistle’s Mag is a parcel of twitching uncertainty, never more compelling than when she tells her daughter exactly what she thinks of her.

But the script isn’t as assured as it needs to be and simply leaves too many unanswered questions, rendering the characters somewhat unbelievable. Around the midway point, there’s a scene that is surely intended to transform everything we’ve seen so far, as the bear does a bit more than just lie around – but sadly, it doesn’t quite come off.

Also, this is an extended riff on the plot of Frankenstein; there’s no mistaking it, as it’s  heavy-handedly referenced at one point, just to be sure we’ve got the message. Of course, it’s not this production’s fault that the last play we saw was Rona Munro’s sprightly adapation of that classic tale, but it certainly doesn’t help matters that this incarnation feels somewhat lumbering by comparison.

The Monstrous Heart is all about nature versus nurture, how creators can become as twisted and unpredictable as their creations. It certainly isn’t dull and it keeps me hooked right up to its violent conclusion.

But I am left wanting a little more substance, a little more depth.

Nice bear, though.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

 

21/10/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Frankenstein is an integral part of our cultural landscape, its imagery known to all, even those who’ve never read the book or seen a movie version of the tale. I love it, but it’s been adapted and interpreted so many times that I’m almost reluctant to see it again. What else is there to say? Playwright Rona Munro had the same misgivings: ‘What version of Frankenstein hadn’t I seen already?’

Her conclusion – a version that places a punky teenage Shelley (Eilidh Loan) on stage with her creations – is inspired, extending the duality so central to the novel. For who is Mary if not Victor Frankenstein (Ben Castle-Gibb)? Is she not the creature’s maker, alongside the young scientist? All the hubris Frankenstein displays (the frenetic, obsession with his work; the rejection of accepted norms; the willingness to unleash horror to realise his dreams) is Mary’s conceit too. And if the monster (Michael Moreland) represents the darkness in the doctor’s soul, he surely also embodies the destructive nature of the writer who conceived them both.

In a weird way, the horror is both negated and amplified by Shelley’s presence: we always know it’s a fiction, each death or salvation dependent on a scribble from a pencil pulled impatiently from the writer’s hair – and yet, as we’re reminded, this monster really lives; he is immortal, long outlasting both of his creators.

Becky Minto’s design is gorgeously stylised, all stark and glacial, with bare white roots and branches used to hint at wires, hearts and veins. The monotone costumes add to the abstraction; there’s a suggestion of the period, but no attempt at naturalistic portrayal. Patricia Benecke’s direction makes clear that this is an exploration of the novel’s heart, not a faithful retelling of the story as it stands.

Occasionally it feels a little rushed; the scene where the creature meets the old man (Greg Powrie) suffers particularly in this respect. And Natalie McCleary (who plays Elizabeth) feels a little under-used: she has a strong stage presence and her character could easily be given more to do. The only other issue for me is the excessive use of dry ice. It’s one thing to create a misty, creepy atmosphere, but come on… It’s October; half of the audience are struggling with colds. It doesn’t seem sensible to tickle our throats to this extent.

Despite these minor niggles, I’m really impressed by this play. Munro’s quirky adaptation exposes and illuminates ideas I hadn’t thought of in a story I thought I knew too well.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield