Theatre

The Funeral Director

08/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A fascinating conundrum lies at the heart of Iman Qureshi’s The Funeral Director. How far should people allow their chosen religion to dictate their actions… particularly when that religion instructs them to go against anti-discrimination laws?

Ayesha (Aryana Ramkhalwon) and her husband, Zeyd (Assad Zaman) are the Pakistani proprietors of a Muslim funeral parlour in the north of England. The business has been inherited from Ayesha’s mother and the young couple are struggling to keep the place solvent, whilst putting their personal ambitions on the back burner. Their five year marriage is clearly struggling, something that Zeyd tries to overcome with a disastrous choice of a present for his wife’s birthday.

But the normal order of business is rudely disputed when a distraught young man, Tom (Edward Stone), calls to the parlour, looking to arrange the burial of his recently deceased Muslim boyfriend. Ayesha and Zeyd feel they have to turn him away, since homosexuality is expressly forbidden by their religion. To go along with Tom’s wishes will doubtless be badly received by the Pakistani community which they serve – and would likely affect their already struggling business. Soon after, Ayesha reconnects with childhood friend, Janie (Francesca Zoutewelle), a barrister who has returned from London to care for her invalid mother. It’s clear from the outset Ayesha and Janie have some unfinished business – and, just to make things even more tricky, Janie’s new occupation may come in very useful when Tom decides to sue the funeral parlour for sexual orientation discrimination.

This is a nicely nuanced piece that inevitably recalls the recent case of the Northern Irish bakers who refused to create a cake bearing a pro-gay message – and, just as in that situation, the arguments for and against their decision are incredibly complicated. What’s particularly impressive about this play is that it steadfastly refuses to opt for straightforward answers. It soon becomes apparent that Ayesha’s original opposition to Tom’s request is not for the obvious reasons. I also love the fact Qureshi refuses to turn Zeyd into a stereotype: he’s kind, supportive and ready to try anything to put matters right.

There are some nice performances here and a genuinely moving conclusion, where Ayesha finally gains the courage to confront the obstacle that has been afflicting her marriage for so long. This is a play that will have you discussing its central premise for hours after you’ve left the theatre.

4.1 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Dark Carnival

06/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The Dark Carnival is all about death. If that sounds a bit off-putting, let me add that it somehow contrives to be a great big warm hug of a production (all about death). It’s brilliantly written by Matthew Lenton and gloriously performed by a fourteen-strong cast. Throw in the excellent Kurt Weill-ish songs of the charismatic Biff Smith, plus the music of urban folk band A New International and you have something that is as close to unique as it’s possible to be in a contemporary theatre. Oh, did I mention that the witty script is delivered entirely in verse? Well, it is – and that’s quite a feat all on its own.

The action mostly takes place below ground in Dickinson’s Brae cemetery, Glasgow, where many of the inhabitants enter and exit from their respective coffins, but there’s also a raised proscenium arch which gives occasional glimpses into what’s happening above the soil. It even offers tantalising glimpses of the doorway to heaven, though – due to austerity – that door is now kept well and truly locked, guarded by a fag-smoking, wine-imbibing angel (Natalie McCleary), intent on keeping out the riff-raff.  There’s a clever socialist edge to the narrative and I love the observation that the only deceased who have any hope of lingering in the memories of the living are those that have statues and shrines devoted to them.

We are greeted first by a narrator (Elicia Daly), who has some delightful interplay with members of the audience – Fraser, I’m sure she was exaggerating your exploits! – before introducing us to the other characters. There’s Mrs Eugenia Mark (Ann Louise Ross), a whisky-swilling Victorian lady; Major Montgomery Toast (Harry Ward), who has traded his military exploits for an electric guitar; and there’s the restless John (Malcolm Cumming), who still has unfinished business above ground. We are also introduced to tragic new member of the Necropolitans, Little Annie (Olivia Barrowclough, who uncannily inhabits the persona of a bewildered young child with total conviction).

There’s so much here to enjoy that I find myself increasingly dazzled by the scale and ambition of the piece, which has been drilled to perfection. The design, the lighting, the sound: it’s all spot on. The creators describe it as a ‘music and theatre spectacle’ and I’d say that pretty much hits the coffin nail on the skull. Suffice to say that my attention doesn’t wander for a moment and I leave the theatre humming the final song.

On the night we attend, The Traverse is pretty rammed but, if there are still tickets to be had, grab them now before the carnival moves on in the direction of Dundee.

Don’t miss this. It’s a spirited production in every sense of the word.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

In Other Words

01/03/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

‘A play about dementia set to the music of Frank Sinatra.’

On paper, it doesn’t sound like the most appealing proposition, does it? But this clever piece, written by Matthew Seager, is an affecting study of the ways in which dementia, that most insidious of illnesses, can gradually overtake someone’s life. It also examines the pressures placed upon partners, who increasingly find themselves becoming carers. I have some personal experience here, because the last ten years of my mother’s life were affected by Alzheimer’s – and watching the way Arthur (Seager) and Jane (Angela Hardie)’s close and  loving relationship is gradually destroyed by the inexorable onset of dementia is, of course, tragic and compelling.

We first encounter the couple at their clumsy introduction in a bar, back when they were young and carefree – and we watch their first tentative dance to the titular Sinatra song, the one that is destined to become a touchstone in their lives – but, almost immediately, we slip forward to their harrowing present as Arthur deteriorates before our eyes, transforming into a mute, quivering figure in a chair, the unpalatable reality signalled by a flickering standard lamp and ominous, echoing sound effects. The performances from the two leads are exemplary, and the simple but effective staging works well, snapping me backwards and forwards in time without ever confusing me. It’s poignant to see present day Arthur suddenly transform to his younger, more vital self.

If there’s anything missing from the story, it’s a look into the the characters’ external lives. We learn very little about what they do outside of their relationship. Where, for instance, do they work? What are their interests (other than the music of Mr Sinatra)?And there’s only one brief scene that has a passing reference to any friends they might have. Perhaps Seager wants to concentrate all his attention on the couple’s mutual dependency, but it’s harder to mourn what’s been lost when we haven’t been shown a full picture of it. I’m also a little unsure of how old Arthur is supposed to be when he first begins to exhibit signs of the illness.

But there’s no doubting the sincerity of the story or the fact that it tackles a very important subject with sensitivity and understanding. Seager first became interested in the idea when he worked alongside people with dementia and noticed how regular exposure to music served to calm their mounting terrors. I also know from personal experience that people in the grip of dementia can be perfectly lucid about events that happened decades earlier, but have no memory of what happened minutes ago – a condition that is expertly conveyed here. I cry quite a lot during this performance as it evokes personal memories.

After this brief showing at the Traverse, In Other Words moves on to The Tron Theatre in Glasgow. See it if you can and be prepared to weep.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Ghost: The Musical

26/02/19

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

I’m not fully on board the make-a-musical-out-of-an-old-movie-and-play-on-people’s-nostalgia train, but I like to keep an open mind: absolutes are rarely helpful, and a pleasant surprise is a welcome thing. But, sadly, Ghost The Musical only confirms my prejudice. It feels like a copy, like something filmic shoehorned into awkward theatricality.

It’s not awful. As far as sentimental love stories go, it hits the mark. The plot (by Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote the original film script as well as the book for this version) is – if a little mawkish – at least quirky and fun. Molly (Rebekah Lowings) and Sam (Niall Sheehy) are a young couple, who’ve just bought their first apartment – a do-er upper in Brooklyn – and are looking forward to a shared future. However, Sam discovers some irregularities in his accounts at work and, before he can figure out what’s going on, he’s killed in a seemingly random attack. His ghost, unsettled, can’t leave until the situation is resolved, and there are things he needs to tell Molly. So he commandeers some help from convicted fraudster and reluctant medium, Oda Mae (Jacqui Dubois), and sets out to put matters right.

There are some excellent set pieces here. Particular standouts for me are the sequences set on the New York subway, where Sam enlists the help of the Subway Ghost (Lovonne Richards). These scenes are technically impressive, and Richards’ performance is genuinely intimidating, far scarier than the rather insipid moments where the dead baddies are dragged to hell. I also like every scene that features Oda Mae. Dubois is a charismatic force, and she’s lucky, because she has the funniest jokes and the best songs. It’s a gift of a part, and Dubois makes the most of it.

Lowings and Sheehy are also competent performers, both engaging and sympathetic. And Sergio Pasquariello does a decent turn as Carl, the heavily-signposted villain (honestly, this isn’t a spoiler; there’s never anybody else in the frame). But the songs (by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard) aren’t really memorable, and the whole thing just feels a bit drama-by-numbers for my taste.

Look, if you loved the movie, you’ll probably like this. It’ll set off all those feelgood  tingles, and you’ll have a lovely time. Just don’t go expecting anything more.

3.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Ulster American

21/02/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

We missed Ulster American at the Fringe last year, but we couldn’t miss the buzz surrounding David Ireland’s latest play: the high praise and the damning criticism, the controversy, the hype. So we’re delighted that it’s back at the Traverse for a ten-day run. Now we can see for ourselves precisely what the fuss was all about.

Right from the start. we know we’re in the ‘high praise’ camp. Darrell D’Silva swaggers into action as Jay, an alpha-male Hollywood star, expecting deference and devotion, used to being fêted but in denial about his privilege. He’s visiting Leigh (Robert Jack), a mild-mannered London theatre director, who’s clearly desperate to please the celebrity who’ll ensure his latest project is a sell-out. As they await the arrival of Ruth (Lucianne McEvoy), the Northern Irish playwright in whose drama Jay will take the lead, the two men make conversation, with Jay predictably dominating proceedings. His intense, naval-gazing prattle discomfits Leigh, and the scene is genuinely hilarious – as well as shocking.

The humour here derives mainly from Jay’s lack of self-awareness, and from Leigh’s awkward attempts to disagree without offending him. Jay’s a self-proclaimed nice guy; he loves women. He refuses to see how reductive his hypothetical rape questions might be, and Leigh is no better, colluding as he eventually does. I find myself perplexed by critics who’ve condemned the piece for joking about rape. I’m a feminist; I’m primed to bristle. But the joke is never about rape. It’s about two deluded men and their blind spots, about their tone-deaf ignorance. Jay’s forcefulness juxtaposed with Leigh’s nervy twitching is a fascinating dynamic, and the performances heighten these characteristics to great effect.

When Ruth arrives, their hubris is further exposed. Her play – which both men claim to love – is about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and its protagonist is a Unionist terrorist. American Jay, despite identifying as an Irish-Catholic, has never actually been to Ireland, and is having trouble grasping the basic details. What does Ulster mean, exactly? And what’s a Fenian? It soon becomes clear that he has accepted the part without understanding it, and that he’s not at all happy about the themes that Ruth reveals.

From here, mayhem ensues, as the three pursue their own disparate agenda. Ruth and Jay are at loggerheads, while Leigh is stuck in the middle, tying himself in knots to appease them both, and failing miserably. He claims he’s a feminist, that women’s voices need to be heard, but misses the disconnect between these assertions and his constant interruptions and shushing of Ruth; his mansplaining, “What she really means is…”; his rebuttal of her declaration that she’s British (“She’s not.”).

Still, neither man is wholly repugnant: Jay, despite his bombast and bluster, is well-meaning really; Leigh is weak and obsequious, but he’s not unlikeable. Nor is Ruth a stainless heroine; she’s more than capable of using the situation to further her own ends. But she is the only one with a clear sense of who she is – and it’s she who drives the play to its shocking conclusion. McEvoy portrays her as a force to be reckoned with, all jaw-clenched determination and self-assurance. It’s a remarkable performance.

This is a visceral, explosive piece of drama, reminiscent of early Martin McDonagh with its bloody violence and dark humour, and the direction (by Gareth Nicholls) is flawless. The fights (choreographed by EmmaClaire Brightlyn) are the most horribly convincing I’ve ever seen, forcing me to watch through my fingers, and gasp in revulsion. (I see this as a positive.) All three actors are compelling in their roles; the tension between them is palpable.

We leave the theatre talking about the issues raised, and we’re still discussing them  hours later. This is riveting stuff and an important addition to the #metoo dialogue.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Lady Vanishes

18/02/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes, is one of those perennial Sunday afternoon treasures, a rollicking spoof packed full of plucky Brits, braving the rise of the Nazis with a stiff gin and an even stiffer upper lip. The Classic Thriller Theatre Company specialises in translating such films into stage productions and here the original script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder has been adapted by Anthony Lampard. The cast is headed by husband and wife duo, Juliet Mills and Maxwell Caulfield. At this point I should probably disclose that I have a tenuous connection with Mr Caulfield, as he provided the voice for the audio book of my 2007 children’s book, Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools. He did a darned good job of it, too, and I’m pleased to say his performance here is also rather fine.

The action begins in Austria, where a motley collection of travellers are about to board a train for Switzerland. The station concourse is decorated with ominous swastika flags, while forbidding looking Nazis swagger importantly back and forth, as they enjoy their rising influence on the world’s stage. In the general chaos, young Iris Henderson (Lorna Fitzgerald), who is travelling back to London to meet up with her fiancée, suffers a blow to the head and is promptly taken under the wing of Miss Froy (Juliet Mills), a friendly older lady who helps her aboard the train, dispenses some of the special tea she always carries with her and then, just as it says on the can, rather mysteriously… vanishes. When Iris asks her fellow passengers if they have seen Miss Froy, they all claim there was never any such person. Iris, they insist, got on the train alone.

Only young musical historian, Max (Matt Barber), with whom Iris has already had a less than promising encounter, takes the trouble to help with her inquiries, but it soon becomes clear that the train is packed not so much with travellers as with crates of red herring. There are so many suspects here it’s frankly bewildering. Could it be the two British cricket enthusiasts, Charters (Robert Duncan) and Caldicott (Ben Nealon)? And what about the mysterious brain surgeon, Doctor Hartz (Maxwell Caulfield)? Why does he have somebody swathed in bandages in his compartment? And what’s going on with that secretive couple a few compartments down? We are soon in Agatha Christie territory as the train thunders ever nearer to the Swiss border.

The problem of setting a stage production aboard a moving locomotive is simply and niftily dealt with by an ingenious set change – and there’s no doubting the skill and expertise of the twelve-strong cast as they gamely set about convincing us that we really are aboard a train and this really is something that might happen.

If there’s an overriding issue here, however, it’s with the story itself. What doubtless passed for an amusing and in many ways groundbreaking tale in 1938, now feels faintly preposterous. We are asked, for example, to accept that many passengers on the train will deny the existence of a person, not because they’re involved in a plot, but because they just don’t want to be involved. Hmm.

Perhaps this could have been played more for laughs, but instead, the director has opted to do it straight-faced, even when events are bordering on the risible. And, try as I might, I cannot make every element of the convoluted story fall comfortably into place. What about the Italian illusionist, Signor Doppo (Mark Carlisle)? At one point he attacks Iris and Max with a knife, but even now, a day after I saw the play, I’m not entirely sure why.

Fans of the original film will doubtless have a good time with this. It’s a nostalgic recreation of the original, complete with that familiar feel-good conclusion. Hitchcock has many fans and this production is clearly aimed directly at them. However, whilst I enjoy several parts of the journey, I’m not, I’m afraid, a totally contented passenger.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Dark

12/02/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Nick Mahona’s story, set in Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1979, is based on his personal experience of being smuggled across the border to Kenya by his mother when he was just a small child. Performed by two actors, who take on a whole host of roles, the story is set mostly aboard a crowded matatu (or minibus) as it travels along deserted country roads after curfew, the passengers all risking possible execution if they are caught by Amin’s soldiers.

Michael Balogun makes an engaging narrator for the tale and he’s ably supported  by Akiya Henry, who plays Nick’s mother, several other passengers and various people who are encountered at stops along the way. It’s an ambitious undertaking, that mostly works. There are occasional moments as the story unfolds when it is not always immediately apparent which particular character is talking – an effect that is sometimes  heightened when both actors take turns at the same character – but it’s nonetheless an affecting narrative.

The staging is simply done with a variety of seats being moved about to represent various locations en route, and the bus roof looks like a huge overhead bedstead, suspended on ropes – perhaps symbolising a safe house somewhere in the world. There is also an OHP, which displays a series of vintage photographs and headings to let us know exactly where we are on the journey.

The atmosphere of fear and suspicion is chillingly conveyed and the actors give it everything they have. And this matters, because Mahona’s story is an undoubtedly powerful one and moreover, one that absolutely needs to be told.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney