Allan Stewart

Theatre Bouquets 2019

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

It’s time again to reflect on the year that has passed, and to reconsider all the wonderful (and not so wonderful) theatre we have seen. What lingers in the memory, cuts through this crowded arena even after many months? Which ideas still keep us up at night; what audacious direction still makes us smile? Here – in chronological order – are our picks of 2019.

Ulster American – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – David Ireland; director – Gareth Nicholls

The Dark Carnival – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer/director – Matthew Lenton)

What Girls Are Made Of – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Cora Bissett; director Orla O’Loughlin)

Electrolyte – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – James Meteyard; director Donnacadh O’Briain)

The Duchess (of Malfi) – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (writer/director – Zinnie Harris)

Endless Second – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Theo Toksvig-Stewart/Madeleine Gray/Camilla Gurtler/ Cut the Cord)

Who Cares? – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Jessica Temple/Lizzie Mounter/Luke Grant/ Matt Woodhead/ LUNG & The Lowry)

Shine – Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Olivier Leclair/Tiia-Mari Mäkinen/Hippana Theatre & From Start to Finnish)

Solaris – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – David Greig; director – Matthew Lutton)

Clybourne Park –  Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Bruce Norris; director – Michael Emans)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (writer – Rona Munro; director – Patricia Benecke)

Goldilocks and the Three Bears – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (writers – Allan Stewart & Alan McHugh; director – Ed Curtis

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Goldilocks & the Three Bears

04/12/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s that time again. (Oh no it isn’t!) Well, yes it is actually and, as ever, when you’re talking about pantomime, the King’s Theatre does it better than just about anybody else in the business. This year feels particularly important, as it sees the return to the fold of  panto stalwart Andy Gray, prevented from appearing at last year’s show by serious illness. The extended applause he receives when he walks onstage at the King’s for Goldilocks & the Three Bears is heartwarming, to say the very least.

It feels as though the whole enterprise has had a bit of a reinvention this year. For starters there’s no mention of Christmas, and not a glimpse of the white-bearded man in the red suit. Instead, the theme here is the circus – the greatest show on earth – which gives the producers the perfect opportunity to throw a couple of high class circus acts into the mix. There’s a superb juggler, Alfio, who does things with hats you won’t quite believe, and The Berserk Riders, a motorcycle stunt troupe, who whirl dangerously around inside a metal globe. At one point, they literally have me holding my breath and crossing my fingers.

The plot: Dame May McReekie (Allan Stewart) and her husband, Andy (the aforementioned Mr Gray), run a circus where all the animals are allowed to run free. Meanwhile, their daughter, Goldilocks (Gillian Parkhouse), sings up a storm, and is all too aware that Joey the Clown (Jordan Young) is carrying a torch for her.

But not all circuses are quite so charming. Baron Von Vinklebottom (Grant Stott, channeling Boy George) runs a rival enterprise, where he keeps his animals in cages and enjoys brutalising them at every opportunity. Boooo! When he claps eyes on the three talking bears who are to be the McReekie’s new headliners, he obviously wants them for his own show. Much hilarity ensues – and I really mean that. There are times here where I’m laughing so hard I have tears in my eyes and it’s mostly the result of the skilful interplay between the three lead players. Stewart in particular is a consumate comedy powerhouse.

As ever, the razzamatazz is cranked up to number eleven – and the lush production values on display challenge anything you’ll find in London’s West End. It’s also heartening to witness how subversive this uniquely British art form can be. Where else will you find silly humour aimed squarely at the youngsters, punctuated by risqué remarks about Prince Andrew and other topical subjects, directed at their parents? Whatever happens to hit the zeitgeist is picked up and added to the brew.

And of course, this being set in the world of the circus, there are animals galore – elephants, giraffes, monkeys and (naturally) bears, all lovingly rendered amidst a joyful  onslaught of sound, colour and general exuberance.

If a top quality pantomime is what you’re looking for, your search is over.

5 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

Theatre Bouquets 2017

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Once again we have been wowed by some fantastic theatre this year. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of 2017.

The Winter’s Tale – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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This thrilling, modern-day version of Shakespeare’s play was dynamic and audacious – with the whole fourth act recast in Scots. We loved every minute of it, especially Maureen Beattie’s performance as Paulina.

Chess: The Musical  – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

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The students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland thrilled the audience with a skilful display of all things theatrical. We loved the sophisticated choreography (often incorporating the real time use of video cameras) and choral singing that sent chills down our spines.

Nell Gwyn – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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This superb production of Jessica Swales’ Olivier Award-winning comedy was a delight in just about every respect. From the superbly realised set, through to the opulent costumes and the lively period music, this was fabulous to behold.

Death of a Salesman – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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It was the direction that made this production so good: Abigail Graham did a wonderful job of clarifying everybody’s pain. And Nicholas Woodeson was perfect for the lead role, conveying Willy’s struggle with warmth and vitality.

The Toxic Avenger – Pleasance One, Edinburgh

The Toxic Avenger

A musical in the same vein that made Little Shop of Horrors such a pleasure, The Toxic Avenger was an unqualified delight, romping happily along powered by its own exuberance and the efforts of a stellar cast, who gave this everything they had – and then some.

The Power Behind the Crone – Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

The Power Behind the Crone

This was a wonderful piece of theatre, an exemplar of a Fringe show: beautifully scripted, and acted with precision and panache. Alison Skilbeck had absolute control of the material and created an impressive range of distinct, believable characters.

Seagulls – The Leith Volcano, Edinburgh

Volcano Theatre SEagulls at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

This was the most ambitious, exhilarating piece of theatre we saw this year. Site-specific productions – when the site is as spectacular and relevant as this (we were in an abandoned church, which had been flooded with forty-five tons of water) – can be truly exciting, and this one had a lot to offer.

Safe Place – Rose Street Theatre, Edinburgh

Safe Place

Safe Place provided a sensitive, insightful examination of the uneasy relationship between trans-activism and feminism. It asked (and answered) many questions, all within the framework of a nuanced and intelligent play.

Angels in America: NT Live – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Angels In America

Clocking in at just under eight hours, Tony Kushner’s play offered us a “gay fantasia on national themes” – a sprawling, painful and searingly funny depiction of New York in the 1980s, fractured and ill-prepared to deal with the AIDS epidemic. A truly iconic piece of theatre.

Twelfth Night/Romeo & Juliet – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Twelfth Night

Romeo & Juliet

Merely Theatre gave us some ‘stripped-back’ Shakespeare, performing Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet in rep. The plays featured only five actors and the casting was gender-blind. It all made for an interesting dynamic and prompted us to re-examine familiar scenes.

Cockpit – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Cockpit

Cockpit was a witty, clever play, which saw the Lyceum transformed into a truly immersive space.  Director Wils Wilson served up a fascinating piece of theatre: arresting, thought-provoking, provocative and demanding – and it kept us talking for hours afterwards.

Cinderella – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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We never thought a pantomime would feature in any ‘best of’ list of ours but, for the second year running, the King’s Theatre’s stalwarts managed to wow us. Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott knew exactly how to work their audience, and the special effects were truly spectacular.

Susan Singfield & Philip Caveney

Cinderella

06/12/17

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s hard to believe but the pantomime season is already upon us! In Edinburgh, of course, that can mean only one thing: the annual Christmas panto at the King’s Theatre, presented once again (in fact, for the thirteenth year in succession!) by the ‘gleesome threesome’ of Allan Stewart, Andy Grey and Grant Stott. If you were worried that their enduring domination of this seasonal slot might have led to a certain sloppiness, don’t be misled. Cinderella is just as assured a production as ever, and the ease of the three performers with each other is evident from the off-set. The highest compliment I can give them is that they make this look so easy, when in fact pantomime is one of the hardest theatrical disciplines to get right.

Mind you, they don’t mind subverting some of the established rules of panto either. Why not have four dames, for instance? A nice one (Stewart as Fairy May), a mean one (Stott as Baroness Hibernia Hardup), and two that are … well, women (Clare Grey and Maureen Carr as the Ugly Sisters)? And who ever said that Cinderella (Gillian Parkhouse) and Prince Charming (James Darch) can’t be involved in some of the funniest scenes? Meanwhile, it’s left to Grey to deliver his usual dim-witted, prat-falling persona as Buttons. Okay, so some of his material may have sailed into Edinburgh with Noah, but my goodness, he makes me laugh!

So, what we get is a fine festive banquet, replete with colourful costumes, energetic dance routines, double entendres, local banter and lashings of general silliness. Any mistakes that occur are gleefully pounced upon and incorporated into the hilarity and there’s plenty of skilful audience interplay – anyone would think these guys know what they’re doing.  Just when I’m thinking ‘this is great but there’s nothing here to rival last year’s stunning ‘helicopter’ sequence’, the special visual effects team unleash a creation that has large sections of the audience – me included – gasping out loud in a ‘how did they do that?’ kind of way. 

If you and your family are looking to get into the festive spirit, this would be a really good place to start. Cinderella runs until January 21st and there are still some tickets available at time of writing, but please don’t hang about… they’re selling like the proverbial hot mince pies!

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Theatre Bouquets 2016

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We’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing theatre again in 2016. Here, in order of viewing (and with the benefit of hindsight), are our favourite productions of the year.

Hangmen – Wyndham’s Theatre, London

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An excellent start to the year’s theatrical viewing, Martin McDonagh’s play was absolutely superb: funny, frightening and thought-provoking with an outstanding central performance by David Morrissey.

The Girls – The Lowry, Salford

Gary Barlow, Tim Firth and the original Calendar Girls credit Matt Crockett

This was the biggest surprise of the year for us: on paper, it sounded a million miles away from the sort of thing we usually enjoy, and we went along reluctantly. But it was a truly delightful production – flawlessly realised.

The Merry Wives – The Lowry, Salford

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Northern Broadsides version of The Merry Wives of Windsor was a rambunctious, irreverent take on the tale, with the inimitable Barrie Rutter clearly relishing the role of Falstaff.

I Am Thomas – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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A strange and eclectic production, telling the tale of Thomas Aikenhead, the last person in Scotland to be hanged for blasphemy, this was essentially a series of vignettes and musical interludes, with an ensemble taking turns to play the eponymous role.

King Lear – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

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Michael Buffong’s King Lear was a tour de force, a gimmick-free yet undeniably modern production. Don Warrington was well-cast in the central role, but it was Pepter Lunkuse’s Cordelia who really stood out for us. She’s definitely one to watch!

Stowaway – Home, Manchester

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Analogue Theatre’s troubling tale of a stowaway falling from a flying aeroplane and landing in the car park of a DIY store was fascinating, depicting a moment where worlds collide and understandings begin to take root. A thought-provoking, political play.

Royal Vauxhall – Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

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A quirky and irreverent musical, telling the true story of when Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett dressed Princess Diana in drag and took her to the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London for a night out, incognito. We loved this production.

Wonderman – Underbelly Potterrow, Edinburgh

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Based on the short stories of Roald Dahl – and incorporating a true incident from his eventful life – Gagglebabble’s collaboration with the National Theatre of Wales was a sprightly mix of drama and music with a deliciously dark heart.

Cracked Tiles – Spotlites, Edinburgh

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This beautifully crafted monologue, written and performed by Lorenzo Novani, was the downbeat tale of a young man who inherits a Glasgow fish and chip shop from his father Aldo. Novani was quite staggering as Riccardo.

Dear Home Office – Underbelly Med Quad, Edinburgh

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This was the story of unaccompanied minors applying for asylum in the UK, performed with touching vulnerability by eight refugee boys. The play was an amalgamation of the performers’ own experiences, blended with fictional accounts. A raw and truthful exposé.

The Suppliant Women – Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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It’s a rare thing indeed when you go into a theatre and are treated to something unique – but that is the word that kept coming to us, as we sat entranced in the stalls of The Lyceum, watching David Greig’s production of The Suppliant Women. Truly brilliant.

Grain in the Blood – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

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A real one-off, this was a stark, unnerving chiller, at once contemporary and classical, with dialogue that was taut and ultra-modern in style, all fragments and silences and unfinished thoughts. This was a complex, angular, unwieldy play – a fascinating watch.

Jack and the Beanstalk – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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By far the best panto we have ever seen, this was a standout production, with fantastic performances from King’s Theatre regulars Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott. It brought the year to a celebratory end.

Susan Singfield

Jack and the Beanstalk

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30/11/16

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

I thought I knew what to expect with this one. I’ve seen a lot of pantos in my time (and even performed in a few amateur productions when I was a kid). But I have never – NEVER – seen one as accomplished as this. The sheer scale and spectacle of it is genuinely awesome. I left the theatre feeling light as air and full of joy. And surely this is what pantomime is all about?

Allan Stewart (Dame Trot), Andy Gray (Hector) and Grant Stott (Fleshcreep) have made their collective mark as King’s Theatre panto regulars – and it’s easy to see why they’re so popular. They have an easy rapport with each other, as well as with the crowd, and they’re genuinely funny, milking the script for all its worth, as well as ad-libbing profusely to excellent effect. And the supporting cast are all good too, with no weak link among them.

It’s nice to see a pantomime that values its host city; typically, they seem to make jokes at the town’s expense, rather than celebrating its fabulousness as this one does. The good fairy, for example, is presented as ‘The Spirit of the Castle’ (Lisa Lynch), which rather obviously implies that the city itself is a protective one, with goodness at its heart. It’s a lovely touch.

The production values are very high. There’s clearly been no expense spared, and every penny has been well spent. From the superb costuming (the animals are particularly appealing) to the special effects, this is truly a spectacular piece of theatre. The giant, for example, is extraordinarily rendered, a looming monstrosity of a prop, prompting the whole audience to gasp – although even this pales in comparison to Dame Trot’s jaw-dropping beanstalk ascent.

If there’s a criticism, it’s a tiny one: the giant’s demise is perhaps a little underwhelming after everything that has gone before. But honestly, it doesn’t matter. With a show where everything – the music, the choreography, the acting, the writing, the jokes, the scenery – is this impressive, it seems churlish to criticise.

By far the best pantomime I have ever seen: a standout production.

5 stars

Susan Singfield